Mystery and realism blur together in A Study in Charlotte, a contemporary tale of friendship, loyalty, and letting go. This novel is written by Brittany Cavallaro, a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Aside from writing poetry and novels, Ms. Cavallaro is an editor. The novel follows the descendants of the presumed-fictitious Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson as they set out to conquer their demons and solve some mysteries of their own. Cavallaro’s writing style was distinct, but it was sometimes confusing because of the narrating situation. The main characters were well-developed, but the others were flat and difficult to sympathize with. At the beginning-middle the plot was slow and, as the characters hit many dead ends, it was slightly redundant. Many of the smaller conflicts/red herrings were never fully explained or resolved. In conclusion, I desperately wanted to enjoy this book (from the good reviews, beautiful cover, and female re-invention of Sherlock), but was sadly disappointed.
In A Study in Charlotte, a British boy named Jamie Watson (Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick, Dr. Watson’s, great-great-great-grandson) is accepted to Sherringford [boarding] School in Connecticut on a rugby scholarship. Although he is the opposite of his thuggish teammates, as he “wears cable knit jumpers and reads Vonnegut for fun”, he tries to blend in among the wealthy elite at Sherringford. One day, during lunch on the quad at Sherringford, he gets into a fight with Lee Dobson, one of his teammates, after Dobson makes a nasty remark about Charlotte Holmes, Sherlock Holmes’s great-great-great-granddaughter whom Jamie had grown up admiring and hoping one day to meet. A couple of weeks later, Dobson winds up dead. Charlotte and Jamie, or, as they call each other, Holmes and Watson, are thrown into the murder mystery as the prime suspects. The only way they can prove their innocence, what with everybody at the school and on the police force seemingly pitted against them, is to find out who really committed the dastardly deed.
At the beginning of the book, the plot was being set up to be spectacular, but as the story wore on, it became less about the mystery and more about the narrator and his struggles (which would have been fine, except I didn’t really care for the narrator). It was slow, plodding along in the middle as Charlotte and Jamie had difficulty communicating and establishing key suspects. But then, as if Cavallaro just wanted to finish her book and get it into publishing, it sped up remarkably at the end. It is, in fact, quite hard to review the plot, as at some points it was choppy, leaving the reader to figure out what had happened, and at some points insignificant ordeals were laboriously dragged out. The chapters were extremely long, sometimes causing the reader to get a little lost because there was no separation between events. There were plenty of twists to go around, but there was a certain oomph missing from the narrative. There were also a little too many coincidences for my taste, a little too many people who happened to know each other, a little too many connections and deductions of Charlotte’s that did nothing but make the characters pack up and move on from an important piece of information. I mean, we’re dealing with a murder here, kids, let’s not just touch the evidence and run, etc.! I found the red herrings that Cavallaro tried to paste into the mystery obvious. They were definitely not Christie-worthy because they were never explained thoroughly and just didn’t make sense. I didn’t understand why Cavallaro tried to make almost all the characters seem suspicious if she was never going to explain their motives or connection to the crime. Though I found the mystery predictable, the resolution was a pleasant surprise.
Jamie Watson and Charlotte Holmes (has anybody else noticed how much Charlotte sounds like Sherlock?) are the principal characters in A Study in Charlotte. They are both about sixteen years old and have a flair for the mysterious. Jamie narrates the story, so we get again and again (and again) his lust for Charlotte and his obvious need to be noticed. Jamie wasn’t as annoying as usual YA male leads are, but I still found him hard to put up with because of his sudden mood swings, unexplained feelings, and over-protectiveness of Charlotte. He was an outcast at the school, but not in a stereotypical way. Although readers were probably supposed to sympathize for Charlotte, I found it easier to connect with Jamie, perhaps because we were getting his perspective on everything and Charlotte is an emotionless ghost. He was overall a more believable character with a more realistic story. However, his fantasies about Charlotte and him meeting each other, clicking, fighting crime, and finding themselves in thrilling scenarios just out of his favorite Law and Order episodes were hardly conceivable. Charlotte is the typical goody-two-shoes-turned-bad-girl. She was raised in a strict, elite family where she was trained from a young age to be a detective: to resist feeling anything for anybody (that is, anything but hate and remorse), to sacrifice herself, to view everybody she laid eyes on as untrustworthy and manipulative, as a specimen that should be investigated rather than a human being that should be listened to. Cavallaro blames her more questionable actions as a product of the high expectations her family name places on her and on the high-stress environment she was raised in. I did enjoy Charlotte’s sharp wit, knack for making complicated and often funny deductions about Jamie’s day, and her dialogue. All in all, Charlotte reminded me a lot of Fiona Loomis from The Riverman trilogy (the damaged girl who obviously needs to be healed by a passionate nerd who just happens to pine for her and wants to help her solve mysteries, usually connecting to her family). Also, the police and staff at the school were grossly caricatured. Their worst features [usually their capacities to annoy Jamie and Charlotte (ugh, teenagerdom)] were exaggerated, probably in an attempt to make their characters and motives clearer to the reader. As the plot could get a bit blurry, I did appreciate that. (Besides, the clueless adult characters did provide a good laugh once in a while.)
Brittany Cavallaro has a writing style. Jamie Watson has a voice. Yes, the narrator was quirky in his over-use of the phrase “the worst part?”, but that was about it. Jamie’s voice was developed, but it wasn’t special. He was a naive character, and so his writing style and perspective were naive. I think that Cavallaro was clever in having Jamie first-person narrate the novel because it added a sense of mystery and almost unreliable narration to the story. I just wish Cavallaro had gone full-circle with that. His feelings often masked the plot, but it seemed too unintentional, as if it was just his inexperienced writing style that mixed things up. Perhaps Cavallaro could have strengthened her ability to write as a typical teenage boy before delving into a book series that required her to do that and beyond.
A Study in Charlotte is advertised as a young adult novel, and that it is. The vocabulary and some of the scenes in the novel were more mature, but the predictability of the characters and the easy-to-solve mystery seem more suited for a middle-grade book. However, an older reader would have an easier time understanding all the concepts and connecting to the high-school-aged characters, so the appropriate audience is probably grades 8-10.
This novel was not my favorite, but there are plenty of reviewers out there who think otherwise. As a first young adult novel, I think Brittany Cavallaro did a good job, although she did lose my interest a few times. This novel had a plot, just not an amazing one. This novel had characters, just not inventive, new, breaking-the-archetype ones. This book was just meh. Someone just getting into the mystery genre looking for a thought-provoking read with unsuspected twists and turns might enjoy it, but a mystery-fanatic might recognize the solution before the characters do!