“Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”
I don’t know if this is just an American obsession, but we like highly odd and unique unsolved mysteries. I remember I was a child when I first heard about Elizabeth Borden and the gruesome deaths of her parents.
August 4th, 1892, in the small town of Falls River, Massachusetts, Mr. and Mrs. Borden were found murder in different rooms of their house, both by multiple ax wounds. Even though the pictures of the victims are grainy and black and white, it is very clear how violent these murders were, especially Mr. Borden, whose face was unrecognizable.
A few days after their deaths, Lizzie was arrested, but months later was acquitted, as there was no witnesses, the murder weapon wasn’t found, and the jury just couldn’t believe a woman could’ve committed such heinous murders.
Due to the violent nature of the crimes, the strangeness of Lizzie, and no one ever being found guilty of the crimes, the whole affair found its place in American folk lore (as the nursing rhyme above shows). This fascination is still strong, as recently the case has been covered by a couple made-for-TV movies.
See What I Have Done is the first book I’ve read that covers the subject, and I was really excited to dive in. The story unfolds through the point of view of four different characters: Lizzie, her sister Emma, their housemaid Bridget, and the mysterious Benjamin.
I liked the first part just fine, but then everything slowly started to break down for me and became a chore to get through by the end.
Lizzie’s point of view is unpleasant and childish. I felt that at any moment the character was going to completely break down into a stream of consciousness, her thoughts were so scattered. As difficult as it could be to read Lizzie’s sections, at least it fit the character and I understood what Schmidt was trying to convey.
But I think what hurt it is that this unpleasantness spilled into other characters, especially Benjamin, who I found equally hard to read. For me, I think Benjamin should’ve been dropped altogether. It took away from the creepiness of Lizzie, and the character brought nothing to the table.
Emma’s parts were serviceable, giving us insight into Lizzie’s motivations, but I really liked Bridget, the Borden’s lone hardworking maid. The character not only filled in gaps, she also provided a perspective that showed that all of the Bordens were messed up in their own ways, and this family was a ticking time bomb. I was sad that Bridget just exited the story at one point, and I wasn’t given any ending. I know I can just look it up on wikipedia, but I think the character deserved more in the book.
Ultimately, there are two main reasons this book ended up getting a low score from me. The first being that the second half really lost steam and I had a hard time just finishing the book. The second is that there were so many odd choices. The glaring one being the character of Benjamin, but I found some other choices to be mind-boggling as well.
Most of the story takes place within two days, the day of the two murders and the day prior. Every time the the narrator switched, we ended up at a different spot within those two days. Time jumps are fine, but with such a narrow window, towards the end it just got messy and repetitive.
By focusing mostly on these two days (plus one section that is a decade in the future), everything starts to feel dragged out by the end, and I was disappointed that Lizzie’s trial only got a couple of pages.
There’s some good elements here, especially the characterizations of the Borden family, even though they are all frustrating characters, was well-done. And the idea of jumping around to different point of views and times would’ve been a good idea, I just think a fourth person was too much.
With the subject matter the book had a few dark scenes, but I thought it was pretty tame for what happened. What made me feel ill and want to stop reading was the descriptions used by both Lizzie and Benjamin, usually about everyday things.
In the end, I was just underwhelmed.
*** I want to thank NetGalley and Grove Atlantic Press for providing an ARC for a honest review.