Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My long-awaited introduction to Matthew Pearl is a mixed bag

The Technologists
by Matthew Pearl

I’ve had a galley of Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club sitting on my bookshelf since before it was published. How long ago was that? That’s how long I’ve been meaning to get around to reading the man. Story of my life. Hurrah! I have finally met this goal!

Set in 1868, this period thriller opens with an act of terrorism. Early one Boston morning, several ships’ compasses and other instruments fail. In the fog, they crash into each other and the wharves. There is pandemonium, destruction, and loss of life. The cause and perpetrator of this mayhem is unknown. This is the first of several incidents that virtually bring the city to its knees. All the attacks seem to involve science, and this is at a time when there’s a great distrust of science in general.

1868 also happens to be the year of the first graduating class of MIT. Pearl’s protagonists, determined to secretly solve the mystery and save the city, are several members of the small student body, most of whom are underdogs in one way or another. At the very heart of the tale is working-class charity student Marcus Mansfield. Mr. Pearl has created a mostly appealing ensemble, but I don’t honestly think that character development is his greatest strength. It is clear that historical accuracy and research is. I’m not enough of a history buff to tell you if every single aspect of this novel is accurate, but I was doing a lot of Googling as I read, and there was a tremendous amount of real history worked very effectively into the plot. And the time and place was fascinating—especially to me, having lived in Boston for a number of years. Thank you, Mr. Pearl, for the time machine. Additionally, the science used in the plot was clever and inventive.

About the novel’s plot… Well, it’s complex and convoluted—perhaps a bit excessively so. I found my credulity becoming increasingly strained as the novel proceeded. There were some coincidences late in the game that I found annoying as well. Elements of the story were overly melodramatic. And the dénouement, when it came, was satisfyingly full of surprises and reversals, but I wonder if Mr. Pearl took things just a step too far. There were so many surprises and reversals that it felt like it took forever to finally get the truth!

Did I enjoy reading this novel? Yes I did, unquestionably. But I do feel it had flaws, and overall, after looking forward to reading this author for so long, I was just the slightest bit disappointed. Since this is my only experience of his work, it’s possible this wasn’t the best book with which to start, and I look forward to reading more of him in the future.

NOTE: I had tremendous fun reading this novel on the free Subtext iPad app.  It allowed me to fully annotate the novel with marginalia--links to websites, articles, photographs, and more--and to interact and discuss the novel with other readers.  If you have an iPad, check this app out!

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