June 2, 2014

Unearthing Old Secrets

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker

Release Date: May 27, 2014
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 656 pages
Source & Format: Publisher; Paperback
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
August 30, 1975: the day fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan is glimpsed fleeing through the woods before she disappears; the day Somerset, New Hampshire, lost its innocence.

Thirty-three years later, Marcus Goldman, a successful young novelist, visits Somerset to see his mentor, Harry Quebert, one of America’s most respected writers, and to find a cure for his writer’s block as his publisher’s deadline looms. But Marcus’s plans are violently upended when Harry is suddenly and sensationally implicated in the cold-case murder of Nola Kellergan—whom, he admits, he had an affair with. As the national media convicts Harry, Marcus launches his own investigation, following a trail of clues through his mentor’s books, the backwoods and isolated beaches of New Hampshire, and the hidden history of Somerset’s citizens and the man they hold most dear. To save Harry, his writing career, and eventually even himself, Marcus must answer three questions, all of which are mysteriously connected: Who killed Nola Kellergan? What happened one misty morning in Somerset in the summer of 1975? And how do you write a successful and true novel?

Thoughts on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
While I occasionally read literary thrillers, I debated whether or not I wanted to read The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair when I was approached about reviewing it. Clocking in at over 600 pages, I wasn't sure if the summary had me intrigued enough to commit to a book that was that long.

Then, I read some of the hype it's gotten worldwide. Originally published in French, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair has sold over 2 million copies in Europe, won three literary prizes in France and has received a ton of international praise. To be honest, I decided to give the book a shot based on the hype alone. Unfortunately, in this case, I didn't feel that the book lived up to my expectations. There were three things that kept me from truly enjoying this story:

The Case
Here's the premise: A fifteen-year-old girl, Nola Kellergan, is seen fleeing through the woods in Somerset, New Hampshire, and then mysteriously disappears. Thirty-three years later, Marcus Goldman, a young novelist who's already written one book to great acclaim, goes to visit his mentor, Harry Quebert, in Somerset. He's hoping that Harry, a celebrated author, will be able to help him overcome his writer's block. And then comes the twist Marcus doesn't see coming: Nola Kellergan is found buried in Harry's backyard. Marcus sets out to clear his mentor's name and begins a journey that will leave him questioning everything and everyone around him. In the process, Marcus realizes he has everything he needs to write his next book - telling the truth about Harry Quebert and Nola Kellergan.

The premise and case was intriguing - I really did want to know what happened to Nola! Typically, the thrillers I read are fast paced, tightly plotted and hinge on an element of mystery and surprise. Unfortunately, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is filled with info dumps. Within the first 100 pages alone, Marcus shares a lot of his personal history, despite it having almost no relevance on anything else that happens in the book. Unfortunately, the tendency to just dump a huge chunk of information on the reader continues throughout the rest of the book. The seemed to be no concept of "show, don't tell." There are some random moments (basically flashbacks) where you lose Marcus as the narrator, but almost the entire book is Marcus just telling you everything that has happened to him in his life, in his conversations with Harry and in his investigation.

The case itself was interesting, but it truly wasn't the focus of the book. It read more like Marcus' story. If the case had been in the spotlight, I think I would have enjoyed this book more. I wanted to find out more about Nola, that fateful day in 1975 and the secrets in Somerset and see less of Marcus in everything. Also, while it won't happen with every reader, I did guess the guilty party within the first 100 pages and was somewhat disappointed when I got to the end and realized I really had figured out the ending so early on.

I think the case was secondary to the concept in this book, which brings me to the second reason I struggled with The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.

The Concept
The book within a book concept felt like a gimmick the entire time I was reading. Each chapter begins with a piece of writing advice that Harry gives Marcus, and it felt like a really awkward way to open each chapter. The book opens with Harry telling Marcus how important it is to use the first chapter to capture the reader's interest. This was a pattern throughout the book - advice on having a twist before the twist appears, discussing the way to close a story as the book nears the end, etc.

There are also excerpts from Harry's "bestseller" throughout the book, and I had a hard time suspending my disbelief that his book would have had any cultural impact. The excerpts were so poorly written, and I'd never pick up the book (if it was real) if I'd only read those quotes from it.

Furthermore, I found it hard to believe that Marcus would be so involved in the investigation. I can't imagine any police officer, sheriff's department, or investigator who would allow an author to be so tied to the case. Marcus was given an unbelievable amount of access to information during an

I found these elements distracting - it took away from the mystery and made Marcus' book the heart of the novel. In many ways, the book didn't read like a thriller. Parts of the book seemed too self-referential, but not in a fun or clever way. The tone made it seem too serious, too pretentious, so I was never able to connect to the concept. I couldn't tell if it was supposed to be a sort of ironic, intentional nod to the reader. Either way, it really didn't work for me.

The Characters
This book was originally written in French and was translated into English. I spent a majority of the time wondering if there was just too much lost in translation. The dialogue was incredibly stilted - it rarely reminded me of actual conversations or the way real people talk. Also, if you pulled out a passage from the book and blacked out the names, I likely couldn't tell you who was speaking because most of the characters sounded the same to me.

And the characters speaking and writing these lines? They're almost interchangeable for one another - like stock characters just filling a role. You've got the stereotypical Jewish mother who just wants her son to meet a nice girl, the local waitress wondering when a man will take her out of this town, the small-town cop who potentially jeopardized the investigation, the demanding publisher of questionable morals threatening to sue if Marcus doesn't meet his deadline... I could go on, but needless to say, these characters didn't seem like real people.

Unfortunately, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair just didn't work for me. Personally, I wouldn't likely recommend this book. I would, however, encourage readers to do their own research on the book. Read a small sample to find out if the writing style is right for you! If you're intrigued early on, you'll likely enjoy much of what follows. I also don't read many literary thrillers, so there's a good chance I just wasn't the right reader for this book.

So Quotable
"Writing a book is like loving someone. It can be very painful."
*I received a copy of this book from Penguin in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

3 comments:

  1. Oh boy. This book sounds like it had the potential to be really interesting (and twisty! and fun, in the whodunnit way!). It's too bad that it felt heavy with information, and that it might have lost some of its original intent/idea because it was translated into English. I'm sorry this didn't wind up working for you!

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  2. I read it a while ago in French, and I'm so sorry that you didn't like it as much as I did :(
    I really think that the translation must have played a big part, because in French, it was easy to feel the difference between each character.
    I hope you'll read other books by French authors that you will enjoy better!

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  3. :( NO! I was really curious about this one - and for some reason I absolutely LOVE the title - so when I saw you were reading it I kept my fingers crossed.

    Could it have been a poor translation? The premise sounds fantastic, like it could have been one of those quiet, sleepy murder mysteries I love so much. I'm so bummed out this wasn't the case, Hannah! I don't understand why the author would introduce a murder and then not have that be the focus of the story.

    So I know I've gone on and on about I Am Pilgrim, but seriously. If you're up for another super-long thriller go for it. AND it makes sense for why the main character - an author - would be in on the murder investigation.

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