My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the novel I wish I had read, a few weeks ago when I was binging and I read three books in one week, as opposed to taking almost two weeks to read this one book. It was good, and would have been better, I think, if I had torn into it and taken vicious sloppy bites instead of the nibbling I did, barely nutritious. Maybe I’ll get off my high horse and read it again someday. One can only hope.
Which as screeds go is not very compelling, I know: we live in a nation where propaganda decries/lionizes extremes, and books that are good are supposed to be so good that we can’t put them down (insert several sophomoric exclamation points here). So ask yourself if a work is separate from the viewer. My position in the past on the whole “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” thing has been that nothing exists that we don’t internalize, but let me temper that stance, as it were, by suggesting that self-awareness can warp the eye that beholds.
Look, what I’m trying to say is I really liked The Book of Air and Shadows. It’s part Da Vinci Code, part Maltese Falcon (one character won’t stop talking about how life is a movie, and makes many self-references to how what he’s going through is very Maltese Falcon– or Chinatown– like). It’s about a manuscript, and old letters, and book binding, and Shakespeare and scholarship. It’s not about books, per se, but the title can’t help remind one of Zafron’s The Shadow of the Wind, and there’s similarities there, too. Hell, toss in some similarities to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the research bits) and while you’re at it, The Name of the Rose.
This is not to say the book is a “tour de force,” no. I’m the one beholding all those other books in here, my own experiences and takes on them, and I’m not trying to say Michael Gruber was trying to cram them all into one novel. He’s basically written a mystery, a twisted plot, flawed heroes, femme fatales, Madonna figures, the mafia, and some existential angst in the guise of reformed religion and the meaning of art. It’s juicy stuff, I tell you. Please, don’t do what I did and take your time. Read it all at once.
The novel’s divided along three character lines: epistolary sections from a 17th century soldier-turned-spy, third-person narration over the shoulder of a book-shop clerk/wannabe filmmaker, and first-person narration of a philandering lawyer/weightlifter. There’s an intriguing mix of styles in there, including what I’ve come to call, lately, the Jonathan Franzen tell-don’t-show style (and that’s a compliment, by the way.) You know what I mean- the way people tell stories to each other without trying to get all poetic and descriptive. Actually, the last quarter of the novel takes on that mien almost to a fault, but like I said, I took too damn long to read the book, so maybe my beholding eye was just weary at that point.
And it turns out the writer is from Seattle. I have no idea of that sways your wanting to read this in the least—if it does, please ignore this last paragraph.