Books about women in STEM are having a Moment. You might be thinking they’re all romances and futuristic sci-fi, but there’s at least one gothic historical fiction story in the mix. Anatomy is set in 19th century Edinburgh, and follows Hazel Sinnett, a lady who wants to be a surgeon – and the “resurrection man” (i.e. body snatcher) who helps her.

Anatomy - Dana Schwartz - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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So, here’s a more detailed breakdown of Anatomy‘s plot: Hazel is about 19 years old, and her parents pretty much leave her to her own devices (her mother is still mourning the death of her elder brother, and her father is off protecting Napoleon). She’s practically engaged to her gross cousin, but that doesn’t take up much of her time. She wants to make the most of her freedom while she can, by becoming a physician and performing surgery – a very unlikely occupation for a woman of her status at that time.

She does a Mulan, disguising herself as her late brother to gain access to lectures in anatomy and medicine, in the hopes of learning enough to pass the Royal Physician’s Examination. One of the instructors has her number, though, and boots her from the course, insisting that it would be a waste for a woman to learn surgical skills. Luckily, Hazel has befriended Jack, who earns a crust by digging up dead bodies for surgeons to practice on. He agrees to pilfer a few corpses for her to DIY her education, and (naturally) they fall in love.

It was convenient to read this one so soon after reading Stiff by Mary Roach, which gave me a lot of context for the grave-robbing and anatomy dissection aspects. So, if you’re yet to read either of them, I’d recommend starting with the non-fiction, in order to fully appreciate Anatomy in its gory glory.

It’s definitely a Young Adult novel, but given the gruesomeness of the subject matter, probably one best suited to the upper end of that age bracket. It’s definitely the kind of YA novel that would appeal to adults, and well-written enough to make for a quick read at any age. It has a Bridgerton vibe to it, with the woman having to marry herself off to avoid destitution, but also a Frankenstein vibe, with the mad scientists trying to create and preserve life. I suppose, all things considered, you could make the argument that it’s basically the same plot as Titanic (the “common boy”s name being Jack is what really sells it).

I sped through Anatomy and quite enjoyed the reading experience, but there are a few niggling problems with it that I just can’t let go. For starters, Schwartz never really explains why Hazel is so obsessed with science and surgery, beyond… feminism, I guess? There’s the dead brother angle, and I suppose the reader is supposed to extrapolate that her grief triggered a yearning to conquer the disease that killed him, but it’s not really explicitly stated. It also stretches believability that Hazel would be some kind of surgical savant with only her father’s out-of-date textbooks to guide her, that her parents would neglect her to that degree, that her household staff are more than happy to go along with her amateur-autopsies-in-the-dungeon plan… basically, you have to be credulous as heck to read this one.

You could also probably make a meal out of historical anachronisms and factual errors in Anatomy. At one point, Hazel tells Jack to “shut up” – what I know about 19th century Scottish noble-ladies could fit on the back of a postage stamp, but I’m pretty confident they weren’t saying “shut up”, no matter how unladylike they were.

And, finally, the pacing of Anatomy is really uneven, especially towards the end. The beginning reads like a standard young adult romance (albeit with a macabre twist), but then it suddenly nose-dives into horror with supernatural elements that were barely signposted before the last 50 pages. Schwartz really puts the pedal to the metal, and the whole thing is “resolved” so quickly you’ll get whiplash.

So, in the end, Anatomy is a fun read, but only if you don’t look too closely at it. Even a gentle poke opens up holes big enough to fall through.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Anatomy:

  • “I got really excited in the first third of this book. There were a lot of plot threads introduced and I couldn’t wait to see how they were explored and intricately when together. Well I’m still waiting.” – corny416
  • “I was willing to tolerate the hetero romance and I loved the medical gore and such, but I got close to 200 pages when I realized I wasn’t having fun.” – Melissa N.
  • “Hazel claims to be a lady but acts more like a spoiled brat.” – Shay Lane