I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
As a huge fan of true crime, I have always been interested by the case of Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her father and step-mother with an axe in 1892. Although she was acquitted at trial, Lizzie remains the main suspect in the murder, and I was really looking forward to reading See What I Have Done, which is a retelling of those events. The book benefits from the fact that the events of the book are so infamous, however, because the plot is so simple in that you know what happens, there needs to be more to make the book worthwhile. which in my opinion, See What I Have Done lacked.
In particular, as I said above, I was excited to see how Sara Schmidt presented Lizzie Borden herself, and the aspects of her character which led her to not only supposedly murder her parents, but to dominate her complicated relationship with her sister, and live the rest of her life in the very town where she allegedly committed the crime. Unfortunately, I think the book failed to make Lizzie interesting to me, and instead she was just annoying and simplistic. The Lizzie Borden in the novel is childlike in tone, throwing tantrums and manipulating those around her, but I felt like the dark side to her just wasn’t dark enough. It didn’t strike fear into me, and if the events of the story weren’t based on real life events, I don’t know that I would have suspected that she was even capable of the crime. Most of the characters had an issue along these lines for me. Apart from the set character that they were assigned in the story – Lizzie is childlike and scheming, Emma is the older sister who feels trapped by responsibility, the maid Bridget wants to go home to Ireland – there was nothing else to them. There were no grey areas or complexities, and I didn’t really care about any of them.
The second issue that I had with the book was the slow, lugging pace of the plot and the overuse of minor details. For example, I could barely tell whether the events of the book were simply focusing on the day of the murder, or the days leading up to it and after, because nothing really happened – apart from the murder itself, that is. It seemed like every single action by the characters was one of three options – eating pears, eating mutton, or struggling with food poisoning. I suppose that these details were meant to add to an atmosphere of claustrophobia in the house and increasing tension, like a ticking time bomb, but in reality it just felt repetitive and irrelevant after a time.
Regardless of the lack of action, the book could have been saved by more faceted character exploration, but as that was also lacking, I just felt like I was trudging through mud trying to finish this book. I think it could have been saved by some more character interactions, as they actually barely spoke to each other, but I suspect perhaps that Schmidt did not want to take any artistic liberties adding in events that are not historically proven.
I think Sarah Schmidt was perhaps trying to cast doubt on the belief that Lizzie committed the murders by including the chapters with her uncle and Benjamin, a man hired to teach Mr Borden a lesson. However, she didn’t really go through with it and kept with the story that Lizzie was guilty, which then just made me wonder what the point of these narrators were. I would have preferred for there to be a tighter focus on the Lizzie and her immediate family, or even just Lizzie and her sister Emma, exploring Emma’s suspicions, instead of having so many narrators. This would have made the book much more interesting that simply all of these characters eating mutton and pears.
Overall, I wish that I had loved this book, but it just failed to make me feel that tinge of terror and curiosity that I love getting from the Lizzie Borden case and other true crime stories. It was too weighted down with attempts to create an atmosphere, which simply fell flat for me and felt repetitive and boring.