The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl

I’ve almost gotten to the point that when I see “Bestseller” splashed across the cover of a book and several pages of quotes from reviews inside, I’ll just put that book down and move on. I am so often disappointed by such books. They don’t live up to one-tenth the expectations raised by the front matter. Such a hard sell makes me wonder if the publishers made the mistake of paying a big advance for what turned out to be a stinker and are now pushing the book to try to recoup some of their losses.

I was drawn to this book because I tend to enjoy literary mysteries, that is, mysteries about books and writers. Also because I’ve been reading Dante this year. There actually was a real Dante Club. In this version, the club consists of several famous authors (Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes & Greene) struggling to translate Dante's Commedia into English, under pressure from local conservatives to abandon their effort and shocked by a series of particularly gruesome murders.

Great, I thought. Right up my alley, especially since I'm currently working on translating some Italian poetry. However, I found the beginning very hard going, mostly because the point of view skipped around from one character to another—sometimes staying with each character for only one paragraph before moving on!—and the sheer number of characters jumbled into the first few chapters.

I came close to dumping it after 50 pages, but stuck with it, not just because of Dante (whose work had finally made an appearance), but also because of the time and place (post-Civil War Boston). I'm glad I did, because it got better, although not (in my opinion) reaching the breathless heights promised by the pages of praise from reviewers or the author's compliments to himself in the interview at the end. Still, I enjoyed it. Pearl did a very good job of integrating the mystery into the various threads of the story, and the historical detail was excellent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>