Sometimes I do judge a book by its cover. Or at least, I make the decision to read it based on cover art and back blurb. That’s what happened with The Bookworm, a gorgeous cover and intriguing back blurb lured me into picking it for review. Unfortunately, the book’s interior didn’t quite match the promising exterior.
Vladmir Putin, in his 2006 State of the Nation address called the demographic crisis “the most urgent problem facing Russia”. In an effort to encourage Russians to have children, incentives and rewards have been given to a lucky few who have a child nine months after Procreation Day. Yes, that’s right: Russians are given a day off to have sex so they can win prizes for having children. I mention this because the present-day part of our story takes place around that date. Entire jokes are based on that fact. Also, that’s the only thing Russian in the story, aside from a few Russian words here and there.
Larissa Klimt is a newly anointed professor at Moscow State University. Her field of expertise is Geopolitical History, the study of how wars and regime changes are affected more by geography than anything else. After the first lecture of the semester, where some puns on being ‘creative’ that week are exchanged, one student is left in her class. He looks like a thug and she is none too excited to be caught alone with him. She is even less excited by what he has to say. He claims to have proof that will show the Geopolitical theory is completely wrong and leaves said proof in a bag on her desk. Late for a dinner appointment, Larissa grabs the bag and heads out.
Turns out the dinner appointment is a job offer. Having lived in America for many years, Larissa is fluent in English and is offered the opportunity to serve as interpreter to the American President. She is immediately concerned she won’t have the right kind of clothes to be seated next to a man who owns beauty pageants. What? Seriously? That’s her concern? Moving on. She is also a bit concerned about her job; she isn’t supposed to do outside work during the semester. The man hiring her assures her there is nothing to worry about, he’ll work it all out and they agree he will be in touch soon regarding a screen test.
In the meantime, Larissa’s brother Len, working in Alaska, discovers something wrong with the crude oil coming into the pipeline he is stationed at. He and the man he is working with test the stuff multiple times, determine to do more research separately and plan to meet to discuss it in the morning. They won’t get the chance – one of them will be dead before then.
Back in Russia, Larissa listens to the contents of the Dictaphone cylinders in her mysterious bag and discovers that – gasp! – an elaborate hoax caused Hitler to invade Russia rather than England, proving that clever people and not geography determine the course of history. Whatever will she do with this information?
What follows are murder, political plots, cheap oil schemes, famous historical figures, and some ominous warnings. That’s pretty much the plot of this book.
The author has an easy to read writing style that makes turning the pages fairly effortless. For a mystery, the story is straightforward and requires little emotional or intellectual engagement to follow. That is both an asset, in that it makes this a book easy to pick up and put down, but also a liability: the reader has no reason to pick it up aside from the fact that it’s right there in front of them. This lack of connection with the tale meant I wouldn’t have cared if Larissa died and I wasn’t dying to know what happened next. Throughout my reading time I felt much like I do while perusing an interesting article in a magazine at the doctor’s office, entertained but not invested.
The characters also feel like magazine cutouts. Beautiful people who simply look the way you would imagine a thug, nationalist, or heroine would look. Larissa is gorgeous, interracial, intelligent – but all those words don’t lend her personality. I never understood what motivated her or what motivated anyone in the book. Even when the author has the character explain their rationale it rings false, like a pat answer rather than an actual reason. I’ll add that the author also waters down and creates cardboard caricatures of the real people he includes. The current American president receives a mild makeover, making him nothing like he is in real life but turning him into the one thing he isn’t: boring.
I also had a huge problem with the whole mystery plotline; I just didn’t buy it. Not. One. Little. Bit. The author fails to take into account how the generals on the ground, especially during the WWII era, would have had enormous sway over where and when attacks took place. While historians debate the minutiae of what occurred regarding the England/Russia invasions, the general reasons are pretty well understood. So the big revelation around which the book revolves really didn’t work for me.
I also struggled with the whole location factor, because Russia and America feel interchangeable. There are no deep cultural differences to make the reader aware of where the action is taking place, just some random Russian words thrown out every once in a while, and talk of Procreation Day. From cell phones to take out to speed dating to job politics, Larissa has the life of any separated, soon-to-be-divorced, woman here in the States. In trying to give the book universal appeal the author succeeded instead in turning it into a grocery store brand loaf of white bread: edible, mildly nourishing, inoffensive and ultimately forgettable.
Giving The Bookworm a grade was a bit of a conundrum. It’s a pleasant, easy to read mystery story that’s also a tad silly and generic. Generic means C to me and I pushed it to a plus thanks to the research the author clearly did on simulacrums of old books. As to who would enjoy it, I think someone who likes to relax for a few minutes with a book before going to bed might like it. It’s not so engrossing that it will keep you up at night, nor so boring it will set you to snoring right away. Readers who are endlessly looking for a great read will need to look elsewhere, though. This one just doesn’t meet that standard.