Misses Its Mark
Many avid readers don’t separate
this genre—historical literary fiction—from other
kinds of historical fiction but it has a long provenance and
I find it satisfies my thirst for a good story and the need
to learn something in one book.
Historical literary fiction is a genre that is seldom frivolous
and the same might be said of The Dante Chamber by
Matthew Pearl. By all rights, I should have devoured this
book, turned the pages well into the night. It is full of
history and literature (think Lewis Carroll, Christina Rosetti,
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longfellow, Dante—of course!—and
more). According to published praise and reviews, it is historically
accurate. It has enough mystery and gore to fascinate the
most avid reader of anything from literary fiction to horror
The trouble is, it feels puffed up with erudition. It feels
as if the author couldn’t part with any delicious piece
of research he had uncovered. As a poet myself, I don’t
object to imagery, symbolism, metaphor or even florid narrative,
but my mind wandered and I became diverted from the plot.
I usually zip through a fat novel in a couple of days. I mean,
I read War and Peace with only a single break and wrote a
critique for my literature class the next day with good results.
I was tempted to discard The Dante Chamber to the Goodwill
pile several times. Were there too many characters? Was the
author too in love with those characters or too intense in
making his reader understand every aspect of their psyches?
Was he too immersed in literature of the 19thCentury or too
determined that we would love it as he does?
Some have judged this book “a triumph.” I believe
that if a novel loses its reader in the bowels of intellect,
hell, decadent old mansions, and lots and lots of words, it
hasn’t done the job of entertaining nearly as well as
it should. If you read as an intellectual exercise and appreciate
a big helping of gore and whodunit to get you through, it
may be perfect for you.