Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Expectation mitigation

The Coral Thief: A Novel
by Rebecca Stott

By the time I had read this novel, I'd already seen that it had hit the trifecta of book reviews--starred reviews in Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. Further, the reviewers had all commented on the novel's mix of science, history, romance, and mystery. All I could think is, "I've got to read this book!" Ah, but raised expectations are a brutal thing. Rebecca Stott addresses the issue herself:

"It depends," I said, "On your expectations. Whether they are low or high." "Oh, my expectation are, I believe, unusually high." "Well, then, many things will not be as good as they seem."

And that was my experience exactly. I think that had I come to The Coral Thief with no expectations whatsoever, I would have enjoyed it more.

The novel opens with 21-year-old protagonist Daniel Connor on his way to Paris from his home in Edinburgh. The year is 1815. Napoléon has just been defeated at Waterloo. And Daniel Connor is striking out on his own for the first time to continue his medical and scientific studies at the renowned Jardin des Plantes with the famed Dr. Cuvier. He comes bearing gifts of rare coral specimens, a translated manuscript, and letters of recommendation from his former professor.

As he travels by mail coach, Daniel meets a most extraordinary woman. It takes him a while, in the dark, to realize that she is quite beautiful, though she's about twice his age. She speaks knowledgeably, if controversially, about science. She is like no one he has ever known. When he awakes in the morning, the woman is gone. So is the bag containing his specimens and the rest of the precious items in his charge. Oddly, she's gone out of her way to leave his money.

Despondent, Daniel reports the theft to the French police, a more harrowing endeavor than one might expect. It is there he learns that his thief is Lucienne Bernard. In his desperation to retrieve the lost items, he becomes increasingly entangled with Lucienne and her colleagues. Ultimately, after a meandering start, The Coral Thief resolves itself into a May/December romance and a heist caper.

There's a great deal to like about this novel. Foremost for me was the novel's setting. It was a fascinating time and place. In the wake of major political upheaval, the world was on the brink of a scientific revolution that would change the way we think forever. The characters in this novel are the players in this sea change in thinking. I was so interested in this pivotal time and place, I found myself somewhat frustrated--a rare incidence of me wanting more fact and less fiction. Though it must be said that Rebecca Stott did a really terrific job relaying the significance of the events unfolding.

My biggest problem--and it's a biggie--was with the protagonist, Daniel. He was young, naïve, and frankly didn't have a whole lot to offer. I'm close to Lucienne's age, and all I could think is, What could she ever see in this kid? (Clearly I've failed my cougar test.) And young or not, Daniel is kind of an idiot. He risks so much for a woman of suspect motives. I wanted to slap him. But I did like that Stott addresses some of my conflict directly:

"Why did Daniel Connor take this path rather than the one he was supposed to take, what Rev. Samuels would call the righteous path, the one that went with Cuvier, with hard work, apprenticeship, patronage, the one that would almost certainly lead to success? Why instead did he take the path that led into the muddy and shadowy labyrinths with the heretics and the thieves? You'd have to ask him that. I am no longer that Daniel Connor. That one, that boy, is many Daniels ago."

The book is fairly short, but I have to admit it took me far too long to read. My failure to connect with the characters was a big impediment. Still, some of what Stott's written is so wonderful--such as the haunting story of how Lucienne du Luc became Lucienne Bernard--that it's hard to even suggest anyone miss it. If you have any interest in the time, place, or subjects being addressed, The Coral Thief is well worth a look.
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