A good book, Marcus, is not judged by its last words but by the cumulative effect of all the words that have preceded them. About half a second after finishing your book, after reading the very last word, the reader should be overwhelmed by a particular feeling. For a moment he should think only of what he has just read; he should look at the jacket and smile a little sadly because he is already missing all the characters. A good book, Marcus, is a book you are sorry has ended.
This is some of the advice that famed novelist Harry Quebert gives his protege, Marcus Goldman, towards the end of The Harry Quebert Affair. It is sound wisdom regarding how a good book should end, and one would think that the author of the book containing this passage might follow his own advice. Unfortunately, Joel Dicker’s well-received novel does not leave one mourning the characters, but rather celebrating the fact that they no longer have to be tolerated. I am not in any way “sorry” that this book ended. In fact, I was relieved that it had finally been put out of its misery after 656 grueling pages.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair feels like a weird mashup between The Great Gatsby and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and yet it doesn’t successfully pay homage to either. Our protagonist, Marcus Goldman, is facing the sophomore slump with his second novel. In spite of his wildly successful first effort, Goldman cannot overcome his bout of wrtier’s block this time around, so he turns to his college mentor and renowned novelist, Harry Quebert. Quebert’s The Origin of Evil is one of the most respected literary works of the past thirty years, and Harry is Marcus’ biggest cheerleader. Quebert invites Marcus to his quiet New Hampshire home, and Marcus eagerly leaves the distractions of New York in favor of the more peaceful writing environment there. However, peace is the last thing he finds, because practically as soon as Marcus arrives in the quaint town of Somerset, a body is recovered from Harry Quebert’s yard. As if that wasn’t incriminating enough, it is the body of a 15-year-old girl who is clutching a manuscript of The Origin of Evil. The girl is Nola Kellergen, who had been missing for the past thirty-three years. Harry is arrested, and he admits that he was involved with the girl at the time of her disappearance, when he himself was 34-years-old. Things are not looking good, and Marcus finds himself suddenly inspired by the events surrounding his mentor. He begins snooping around, and decides that the resulting book will both save his career and clear Harry’s name.
What follows is one of the most awkwardly-composed novels I have ever encountered. I understand that Harry has been translated from French, but I’ve read other translations that do not suffer from these problems (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The First True Lie). The plot is just mangled. Joel Dicker is clearly going for a whodunnit, edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller, but he goes about it all wrong. For one thing, the presence of a psychologically deranged character or two does not automatically make something a psychological thriller. Especially when that illness has virtually no significance to the plot.
That being said, the characters themselves are two-dimensional and painfully cliched. There’s the hard-boiled cop, the sassy diner owner, the nagging Jewish mother, the lovesick teenager – they all exist purely on a surface level, and their lack of depth and reasonable dialogue further maul an already crippled plot. We are meant to view the love between Nola and Harry as pure and real, but how can we with Nola constantly declaring sentiments such as, “But, Harry, what’s the point of living if we’re not allowed to love?” And how can we forget Harry’s thoughts on Nola: “As soon as he saw her, he felt his heart explode. He missed her so much. As soon as she saw him, she felt her heart explode. She had to speak to him.” Blechh. This prose is worse than Twilight – that’s saying an awful lot.
As for the mystery of who killed Nola, there are too many twists and turns for the reveal to be anything other than lackluster. By the time the true killer is introduced, Dicker has been through dozens of suspects, and I was overjoyed that he had settled on one so I could put this reading experience behind me once and for all.
Considering that The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is largely about book-writing, Joel Dicker seems like quite the hypocrite. Throughout the novel, Harry provides Marcus with an itemized list regarding what makes for a good book, and all of these rules are blatantly disregarded by Dicker. Maybe he should have composed a how-to on writing a bad novel.
Thank you Penguin/Viking Books for the opportunity to review an advanced copy of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.
Previously posted on danetrain.com