Wednesday, February 6, 2008

People of the Book

I try to avoid all things popular (e.g., I’ve never seen Star Wars or Titanic) because I know, after all the hype, I can only be disappointed. When it comes to books, though, I feel obligated to read what’s popular so I can participate somewhat intelligently in the conversation.

That being said, although I hoped Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book would live up to the buzz, I wasn’t too surprised when it did not. The book is good, but it is not call-up-all-my-friends-(or readers)-and-recommend-it good.

People has been compared to The Da Vinci Code, but I find that comparison erroneous. Although better written than Da Vinci (but, come on, a phonebook is better written than Da Vinci), People lacks the plot, mystery, and pizzazz that made Da Vinci a blockbuster.

Instead, People is much more reminiscent of Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Hyacinth follows the provenance of a Vermeer painting. People follows the provenance of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

As such, the book is divided into several sections. Five sections follow the Haggadah back in history—to Bosnia, to Austria-Hungary, to Italy, to Spain. As the title suggests, it is not the book that is interesting so much as what happens in the lives of those people attached to it.

These sections are the strongest and most interesting in the book. However, for some reason I cannot fathom, some parts are written in first person and some in third. This twist seems to serve little purpose other than to distract and annoy the reader.

The book’s greatest weakness is the contemporary storyline that cushions each section. Hanna Heath is a book conservator hired to work on the Haggadah. She finds clues in the book—an insect, a stain, a hair—that reveal its history.

Unfortunately, I found Hanna’s story to be downright irritating. Hanna is 30 years old, has a double bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a PhD. She has apprenticed around the globe, is well published and highly regarded in her field. Perhaps I am just jealous, since Hanna and I share the same age and similar academic credentials (okay, hers are much better than mine), but Hanna’s experience and success is simply not plausible for someone so young.

Similarly, everyone Hanna meets—from Vienna’s chief archivist to Sarajevo’s head museum librarian—is 30 or under. Really? How did Hanna and her cohorts pack in so much and become so successful in so few years?

I could continue my nitpickiness (Ozren, the head librarian, speaks flawless English but stumbles over the word “hoof”?), but the point is that Hanna is so unbelievable she becomes a rather unsympathetic character. I was far more interested in what happens when she is out of the picture.

People of the Book is an okay read, but I see no need to trample your friends and neighbors to secure a copy. Read it if you have the time and inclination. If not . . .

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