"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Da Vinci Code

Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. Doubleday: New York, 2003. 452 pages.

"While in Paris on business, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon receives an urgent late-night phone call. The elderly curator of the Louvre has been murdered inside the museum, a baffling cypher found near the body. As Langdon and a gifted French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, sort through the bizarre riddles, they are stunned to discover a trail of clues hidden in the works of Da Vinci....Langdon and Neveu find themselves matching wits with a faceless powerbroker who appears to anticipate their every move. Unless they can decipher the labrynthine puzzle, the Priory's secret--and an explosive ancient truth--will be lost forever." (description from the book dust jacket)

Overall review: *** (three stars)

  • Pacing.  The book keeps a fairly constant fast pace which draws the reader quickly through the book without making it feel like the mysteries and riddles are being solved too quickly.
  • Riddles.  Sometimes "obvious" sounding riddles or prophecies in stories can end up having solutions that seem to be stretching credulity a bit (see "no man of woman born" in Macbeth).  Brown's linguistic puzzles, however, are well-constructed with reasonable and fitting solutions.
  • General Plot.  Despite some weaknesses (see below), the plot is engaging and hooks the reader fairly early, even if you disagree with some of the interpretations presented by the characters.
  • Character Motivation.  At times the motivation of the characters feels contrived or convenient rather than realistic. Characters should never feel as though they are simply serving the plot at the convenience of the author.
  • Conspiracy Theories.  Yes, the theories presented in this book are compelling.  However, there are times when characters seem to be making interpretations that seem a bit far-fetched. (Let's face it: sometimes men in Renaissance art look like our idea of women.  That's just the way it is.  See the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks, about which Dan Brown makes other comments.  Totally looks like a chick.)
  • Portrayal of Religion.  Despite some comments obviously tossed in to show that the book is not anti-religion, the Catholic Church is not portrayed in a particularly flattering light.  This may or may not bother readers, depending on their religious inclinations and feelings about Catholicism.

I personally believe that the ability to create a compelling story and the ability to write well are two different things (if you don't believe me, just look at what happened when George Lucas actually started writing the Star Wars movies again...).  There is a reason why there have been literary collaborations throughout the history of literature.  Dan Brown may not have the best writing technique in the world, but he can certainly spin an entertaining plot.  This makes The Da Vinci Code an enjoyable read, if it isn't exactly high literature.  The main characters are a bit flat, with some minor characters being depressingly one-dimensional.  There are also moments where some readers (aka me) might find some of Brown's lack of precision when it comes to word usage problematic (despite what Brown says, scroll and codex are not interchangeable, neither are cross and crucifix or castle and palace).  But these are technical quibbles about the writing.  For people who do not know these things they won't remotely detract from the enjoyment of the book.  Simply put, the draw of the plot overpowers most of Brown's weaknesses as a writer. 

Any time you have an academic ending up in an action-adventure scenario a la Indiana Jones, it requires extremely willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.  The appeal of this book, however, does not lie in the plausibility of something like this happening to a Harvard professor.  This book is escapist in the best sense of the word.  It allows readers to indulge in the fantasy that even people who lead the most staid of lives can potentially be swept up in something exciting and earth-shaking.  Anyone who uses the phrase "escapist" to belittle books or other entertainment underestimates the value of mental escape.  Sometimes you just need to loose yourself in another world to avoid being overwhelmed by this one.  And, if the book's fairly well-known political and religious positions don't bother you, then dive right in and enjoy yourself.

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