“Do you think it’s possible to fall in love with a fifteen-year-old girl?”
Slated to be the blockbuster novel of the year, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair from Swiss author Joel Dicker is a complex and convoluted novel which examines the relationship between two authors against the backdrop of a crime that took place decades earlier. Most reviews of the book are glowing, and since the book won several French literary prizes, sold close to a million copies in France, and is named Amazon’s Book-of-the-Month for May 2014, most readers will come to the book with high expectations.
At close to 700 pages, there’s a lot going on in the book–too much, but more of that later. The book’s synopsis is intriguing, and for this reader, the book was at its best in the beginning as the relationship between author Harry Quebert and his young protégé and former student, Marcus Goldman is established. Suffering from writer’s block, Marcus, who’s a one-hit-wonder of a novelist, can’t write his second novel. Under tremendous pressure, partly due to the hefty advance that’s already mostly spent, Marcus retreats from the glitzy party scene in New York to his mentor, Harry Quebert’s idyllic beachside home in Somerset, New Hampshire. Marcus knows instinctively that if anyone can help him overcome his writer’s block, then that person is Harry. But shortly after his arrival, Harry is arrested for the murder of Nola Kellergan, a 15 year-old who disappeared back in 1975….
Marcus becomes involved in the case and is determined to write a book which will prove Harry’s innocence, but Harry, one of America’s “best selling and highly respected authors” (and pompous to boot) isn’t exactly helping his own case since he admits that he had an affair with the teen and that she inspired his best-selling second novel, The Origin of Evil, the book that served as the pinnacle of his career. Marcus finds himself trapped in the flesh-market of celebrity and caught between loyalties: he can write a bestseller and betray his friend or he sink into obscurity, yet another has-been.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is touted as a cinematic novel, and while I don’t agree, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this, with substantial cuts, made into a film. The novel is also supposed to be “tightly-plotted,” but the plot which moves between 1975 and 2008 meanders all over the place, leaving loose ends until convenient moments of discovery. Other claims about the novel state that it’s a portrait of small-town America, and while the novel begins as a crime story, it clearly morphs into something else as the plot unfolds and becomes increasingly complicated. The missing girl turns out to be a local Lolita; then add corruption, gossip, nosiness, voyeurism, masochism, dodgy police officers, a reclusive billionaire, and the narrow dogmas of some backwoods religion to the mix. (To paraphrase from Out of the Furnace: “Church ain’t over ’till the last snake is back in the bag.”) Unfortunately the wild inaccuracies and implausibilities in the novel eradicate much of the novel’s intentions to portray the ambience and hypocrisy of small-town America.
There’s so much here that’s just off: At one point in the novel, Police Sgt Gahalowood is waiting for a crucial handwriting analysis. A great deal of the case against Harry hinges on the results, and the analysis doesn’t arrive and we’re kept waiting. When the results finally arrive, other story lines appear exhausted so that the timing seems plot driven more than anything else. Then much, much later, just as the plot appears to have been solved, another niggling little loose end drags us back in. The messy, bloated plot includes even a theoretical version of events. Then there’s the issue of implausibility: Gahalowood allows Goldman to ride along repeatedly for the investigation, question witnesses and even shares crucial, trial-determining evidence. Then there’s the issue of the way witnesses are just sitting around waiting to spill the beans on vital pieces of evidence. Marcus steps into their lives, asks a question or two, and all these secrets all too conveniently pour out. Another problem concerns the female characterizations of two middle aged women–Marcus’s mother, and Tamara Quinn, the former owner of the town’s café. These two women are mostly caricature with the result that the scenes between Tamara and her husband are almost comic–a tone which jars with the rest of the book:
Satisfied with the arrangements outside, Tamara went into the house to monitor what was happening there. She found Jenny at her post in the entrance hall, ready to welcome the guests. But she did have to scold Robert , who was wearing a shirt and tie, but had not yet out on his pants–because on Sundays he was allowed to read the newspaper in his underwear in the living room; he liked it when the draft from the open windows blew inside his underpants because that cooled him down, particularly his hairy parts, and he found that very pleasant.
“Enough parading around naked, Bobbo!” his wife rebuked him. “all that is over now. Do you really imagine that you’re going to walk around in your underwear when the great Harry Quebert is our son-in-law?”
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is an ambitious novel which tries to achieve several things. There’s a long buried crime, and a relationship between two writers–one at the beginning of his career, and one at the end. Then there’s an exposé on the hypocrisy of small-town America, and finally, there’s a hard look at American society and the fickle publishing industry, its savage focus on celebrity, the invasion of privacy, media manipulation, the disposability of authors, and the ephemeral nature of fame. I don’t like to slag off on any book, but The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is riddled with problems. So why did I slog through nearly 700 pages?… I wanted to know who killed Nola, the girl who was the living embodiment of, and also interestingly, the vessel of small town hypocrisy. Nola is dead when the novel begins, and yet somehow her image remains alive thirty-three years later. Through memories, Nola has left behind a series of representations, but are any of these memories correct? Or did people just see what they wanted to see? How did Nola become a reflection of various twisted desires? These are some intriguing questions which are unfortunately obfuscated by the bloated, convoluted and implausible plot.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair depicts a whorish American publishing industry while garnering glowing rave reviews and phenomenal sales. The American publishing industry is shown as the real villain here with authors only as good (or as interesting) as their last best-seller. There’s an irony here which did not escape me.
“People like you because you’re young and dynamic. And hip. That’s what you are–a hip writer. Nobody expects you to win the Pulitzer prize; they like your books because they’re cool, they’re entertaining, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Here’s Stu’s review
Translated by Sam Taylor. Review copy.