This book apparently belongs to the “literary thriller” genre. Naturally it is compared to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, depending on the reader’s prefernces, I suppose. Not having read Brown’s book – or heard anything that would interest me in reading it – I can’t comment on the comparison. But The Geographer’s Library is a decently-written book if you have an interest in esoteric bits of history and patience for a slow-moving mystery.
Attaching the word “thriller” to this book seems somewhat inappropriate, as the pace moves fairly leisurely, especially with historical vignettes interspersed with the present-day story. As many reviewers at amazon.com noted, these short stories-within-a-story are generally better than the frame story. (I saw one review that opined the opposite, which surprised me. The one drawback I can think of to those shorter stories was that they were good enough that I would have liked them to continue.)
The common thread through all the historical pieces is that they deal with items that have some significance in the history of alchemy. You learn, over the course of the book, something of the ideas of alchemy – which is much more than trying to turn lead into gold. I found all this very interesting, almost more so than the present-day story. Of course, I was expecting all these items to show up sometime, somehow, in the present-day story. That they did not was part of my disappointment with the ending.
The narrator also lost his appeal for me as a character at the end. He is a young man who ended up as a journalist more or less by accident, and he still has not figured out what to do with his life. I do not expect every book to end with success for the main character, but at least a triumph of the human spirit over obstacles makes a satisfying ending.
I realize that, given the way author Jon Fasman chose to resolve the central mystery, the young journalist’s options were very limited. And perhaps acting the way he does is true to character. But if anything he appears less mature at the end of the book than at the beginning. (Admittedly, only about a week has gone by – so much has happened that it is hard to remember that so little time has passed.)
If this were a book by an experienced writer, I would probably not try another book by the same author. But it turns out that this is Fasman’s first novel. His second novel, The Unpossessed City, just came out last month, and it is getting better reviews on amazon.com (4 stars compared to 3 for the first book). Rather than jumping across centuries and continents, this one is set primarily in Moscow, and gives a close look at life in that city today. (Considering how many of the historical pieces of The Geographer’s Library were set in the USSR, I am not surprised that Fasman has a familiarity/interest in Russia and its people.)