Book Review: Brittany Cavallaro’s A Study in Charlotte


[Trigger warning: Spoilers and brief mention of rape.]

What if such-and-such literary character had really existed, changed history, and had descendants? Descendants who took almost exactly after their literary character ancestors, but who also had to deal with modern day things like American secondary school, texting, and the trials of dealing with the opposite sex?

What about two such descendants following in the footsteps of their ancestors, the most dynamic duo to ever grace the shelves of all the libraries and bookstores in the world?

In Brittany Cavallaro’s A Study in Charlotte, we meet Jamie Watson, great-great-great grandson of the infamous author John Watson, a.k.a. Sherlock Holmes’ spunky doctor sidekick. Jamie has just been shipped off from good old London to the Connecticut boarding school Sherringford on a rugby scholarship. He hates it. All of it.

Except that he’s heard Charlotte Holmes, great-great-great granddaughter of the one and only Sherlock Holmes, also happens to go to school at Sherringford. Jamie has grown up fantasizing about getting on with Charlotte, having adventures, solving wild crimes, and saving lives. When the two first cross paths on the quad, however, it’s obvious Charlotte Holmes — almost an exact (although female) replica of her famous forebear — wants nothing to do with Jamie Watson.

That is, until a fellow Sherringford student ends up dead and they’ve both been framed for murder.

Cavallaro’s A Study in Charlotte is a riotous ride of murderous intent, rocky friendship, and tricky will-they-won’t they young love. The book reads similarly to those of Rainbow Rowell, John Green, and David Levithan, with a dash of crime drama twists and turns and BBC-level interpersonal and family intrigue. While reading it, I would find myself smiling, followed shortly after by a soft gasp. Though the initial chapters involved significant development of just Jamie and Charlotte’s friendship, the final chapters were crime-solving page-turners drawn together with a perfect little Sherlockian bow.

My favorite part throughout A Study in Charlotte had to be both its narrative voice and its dialogue. Both were quick-witted and snarky, keeping characters and readers on their toes. Cavallaro’s narrative voice was insightful and lyrical, describing interactions, character appearances, and events in innovative and distinct ways. Scenes in which either Jamie or Charlotte are shocked or emotional are wrought with an underlying energy that echoes through the page thanks to this voice. Similarly, the dialogue is quick and sharp. The conversations we witness between Jamie and Charlotte portray them both as individuals and as parts of a whole as their relationship evolves. What these characters have to say and the way they say it significantly informs us of their personalities and emotions. In the same way, when Jamie and Charlotte fight, we see the two arm themselves to the teeth with words and intelligence. I also absolutely loved when these two would argue because they acted as if the world were being torn apart; the conflict between them was so magnetic — each pushing away the other when really they just wanted them closer — and simultaneously (or maybe idealistically on my part) realistic.

While I enjoyed the character of Charlotte and wouldn’t mind being friends with her and having her teach me her ways, I did struggle with certain aspects of Cavallaro’s characterizations of her two protagonists. Firstly, as I told several people who asked me about my latest book mid-read, I was put off by Jamie’s odd obsession with Charlotte long before they were acquainted. I understand the idea that, as a child, he invented her as his imaginary friend, but the fact that he was always concerned about where she was, what she thought of him, what she did with herself, before they were even friends, bordered on creepy, in my opinion. I struggled with Jamie’s mindset concerning Charlotte until they were actually close friends and he had actual reason to think about her 24/7 (or, maybe, not 100% actual reason, but more of a reason, at least).

In a similar vein, I struggled with the stereotypically traumatic struggles that Cavallaro set as the history and background of Jamie and Charlotte’s characters. At its most harmless, this is manifested in constructing Jamie as a somewhat angry and distrusting teen because his father left his mother and started a new family on the other side of the Atlantic. Because this overused cliché of the uncared-for, woe-is-me abandoned male was meant to inform us of Jamie’s character, I had trouble actually being concerned about his interactions with his father as well as his severe anger management issues.

Even more problematic is Cavallaro’s decision is to frame much of Charlotte’s character and predicament with an experience of forced nonconsensual sex. Indeed, Charlotte’s rape is not mentioned until it is deemed absolutely essential — as evidence that she might be the prime suspect in her rapist’s murder. She actively avoids mentioning it to the police and throughout the plot refuses to talk to Jamie about it because she knows Jamie will be upset, as evidenced by his initial response: the “blood-roar” in his ears, the need to leave the room, and the decision to punch several walls since Jamie’s version of justice involves someone “get[ting] the pounding that Dobson … deserved.” Charlotte’s rape is merely another traumatic character point that informs us of her reliance on oxy as well as her matter-of-fact and seemingly unfeeling nature. The emotional and psychological effect and weight of this event in Charlotte’s life is not explored; it’s merely stated as if would suddenly make her a more well-rounded character. As the friend that recommended this book to me and I discussed, this is a wholly irresponsible way to not only deal with such a traumatic event as well as to characterize a survivor in a story.

Overall, I thought A Study in Charlotte had incredible storyline threading. There were so many plot elements throughout the story — characters, Sherlock Holmes references, evil deeds, minute clues, emotions — and it all came together in the end in a concise and revealing way quite reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. The characters, especially Charlotte, as well as the dialogue were entrancing and driving. I would definitely recommend passing this book to any friends of yours who like mystery or even Sherlock — just don’t let it end up in the hands of any recently murdered classmates!


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