Every fall in Paris, book-lovers get all crazy with the « rentrée littéraire », when all the new books are published at the same time and all compete for a prize and a minute of fame. Every literary journalist and bookshop owner complains of the burden and readers are flooded with a mass of books with no idea where to start. Then journalists and literary juries take out of the pile a few “works of genius” that everyone needs to read. Weird process, I know. But we don’t have Oprah and her Book Club over here !
Last year’s success was Joel Dicker’s second book, The truth on the Harry Quebert case, a chunky mystery set in New England and written by a 27-year-old Swiss writer. It has been a huge bestseller. I got it as a Christmas present and looked forward to being swept off my feet.
I fear this blog post is once again about having set my expectations too high after all this media hype.
It sounded promising: a young bestselling writer suffering from writer’s block, who had been coached by his university literature professor, comes back to his mentor’s house in a small New Hampshire coastline town, partly to flee from his publisher’s threats and deadlines, partly to find inspiration. But the professor, well-known for having published a great novel in the late 1970s, is accused of having murdered a 15-year-old girl after having seduced her in 1975, when her body is discovered in his garden, together with the manuscript of his bestseller. The young writer rushes to his aid, only to discover that things are not black and white, but that he may find his way to writing a second novel out of the whole investigation.
The result is oh-so-clever, the exact stuff French journalists and jury members will love: a solid plot, an exotic location, and at the same time it gets completely meta on what it means to write a novel, to be a writer, to get successful in the writing industry. I have no problem with a meta level when the basics are covered, but the least I can say is that I wasn’t awed by any of the plot or characters, so that the meta level sounded to me rather pretentious.
The love story between the 15-year-old and the writer is completely unbelievable and so full of “darlings” in every sentence that I got a headache just rolling my eyes. The writing is dry and flat as a lawn by the end of summer and full of clichés, which wouldn’t be such a problem if we didn’t get peppered with lessons on how to write and excerpts of the so-called work of genius that the old professor had written. Although I wanted to learn the truth and discover the mysteries of the town inhabitants (all cardboard characters: the diner owner, the police chief, the priest, the Jewish mother… ), I ended up skipping a lot of pages in the bulky middle of these 670 pages!
I have the nasty feeling of having been tricked, not so much by a young writer who will certainly write a lot more and better in the coming years, but by the publisher who has not done his pruning and editing job (concentrating on his selling job obviously) and by all the journalists who have sung the praise of this book for no good reason.