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The Greatest Book Review Ever

Not everyone can be a judge in the Tournament of Books. Not every novel deserves a rave. But what if the world’s best books were reviewed all at once? The ultimate Frankenstein of reviews.

Credit: Johannes Gilger

Truthfully, I hadn’t heard about this book until a woman told me on the roof of a party that it was one of her favorite books of all time, and yes, reader, a) it later became a favorite of mine, and b) I married her.1

The hallmark of the best young adult novels is that they grow with you: at age eight, I couldn’t have cared less about Peggy and Peaceable’s budding romance and instead loved the book for its spooky but historical ghost stories.2

The prose style is at once cerebral and deeply felt.3 The reader doesn’t so much dread being in Eleanor’s predicament; we fear being Eleanor.4 Parts of the book are so upsetting—or alternately, so delightful—that I found myself closing the book at the end of a few chapters and holding it in my lap for safekeeping, not quite ready to go on.5 This is stratafiction—layers of mineral-rich story, beautiful up close in their contrasting colors and textures, equally beautiful from far away where the layers form a mountain.6 He evokes a humid, gin-soaked Long Island summer day so effectively you can practically feel Daisy pluck the damp fabric of her dress away to let a bit of air in next to her skin.7

Around the 400-page mark—and being only halfway through, with the murder not even occurring for another 200 pages—I looked up the plot on Wikipedia.8 The incumbent Emperor inevitably incurs the wrath of his people, or the army, or both, and is set upon by his trusted right-hand man, or his wife, or both; then a replacement is selected from the family, or from the household staff, or just from people passing by.9 A delicious dramatic irony arises at this turning point, because while the young man expects himself to be the hero of a great love story, the reader realizes him to be more of a witless cog in an incisive commentary on the oppressive class system.10

The one thing I learned: Never ever marry into a North German mercantile dynasty.It’s not so much a novel as a biosphere, with each ecosystem reliant on another within and without, the beginning (as with all life) impossible to chart.11 One of the greatest compliments I can give this, or any book, is that knowing the point-by-point resolution didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the remaining 400 pages.12 At points, the story is mired in Victorian banalities, mainly those describing a large Hungarian man and his erotic adventures at an Insane Clown Posse concert.13 Violent death follows leadership follows violent death follows leadership, and in this manner the bizarre Byzantine cycle continues.14 Also, Miss Havisham just fucking hates men.15 Queens never seemed ghastlier.16

More terrifying, however, than any of the supernatural threats is Eleanor’s all-too-recognizable mental fragility; while she’s clearly on the far end of the neurotic scale, her social estrangement and prying doubts mirror what many of us feel in mixed company.17

Is it wrong to revel in the characters’ delicious names—Frau Permaneder, Bendix Gruenlich—as if they were ripped from the pages of a postmodern comedy, instead of a fin-de-siècle realist novel?18 Each character is so richly drawn (pun not intended), each so different from one another, one can’t help but fall in love with every one of them, likable or not.19 The way Briony grows and matures, from a spindly-legged and bookish girl to a young woman to, at the end, a very old woman, makes it clear the author has studied the vagaries and vicissitudes of human development.20 For the geneticist and young lovers alike, the characters’ lives intertwine and ultimately connect in a style akin to Bach’s Variations.21 At age 18, though, the way the Revolutionary War played a part in their flirtation had me swooning.22

The real genius of the book lies in the final two pages, where a devastating plot twist unravels and lays bare the entire story for what it is: A wish that things had gone differently.23 The one thing I learned: Never ever marry into a North German mercantile dynasty.24

Footnotes

  1. Rosecrans Baldwin, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  2. Nozlee Samadzadeh, The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope
  3. Lauren Frey Daisley, Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers
  4. Tobias Seamon, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  5. Bridget Fitzgerald, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  6. Michael Rottman, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  7. Liz Entman Harper, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. Angela Chen, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  9. Giles Turnbull, Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich
  10. Erik Bryan, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  11. Michael Rottman, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  12. Angela Chen, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  13. Llewellyn Hinkes, Én Vagyok a Szexuális Paprika
  14. Giles Turnbull, Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich
  15. Erik Bryan, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  16. Liz Entman Harper, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  17. Tobias Seamon, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  18. Clay Risen, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
  19. Bridget Fitzgerald, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  20. Kate Ortega, Atonement by Ian MacEwan
  21. Lauren Frey Daisley, Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers
  22. Nozlee Samadzadeh, The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope
  23. Kate Ortega, Atonement by Ian MacEwan
  24. Clay Risen, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

TMN’s Contributing Writers know where to find the purple couch. Long live the pan flute, mini mafia, and Michael Jackson. More by The Writers