Finding myself on winter break from college with literally nothing to do, I decided to take the suggestion of my mother and some friends and read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
First of all, the book certainly is hard to put down. It's a page-turner designed for the mass-market public, and I for one will not be so arrogant as to claim that I'm above such things (well, maybe I am, but hey). However, I would be hard-pressed to say The Da Vinci Code is one of the best books I've ever read (as many people have) or even close to it.
First of all, the cast of characters is annoyingly cliche from the get-go. Our main protagonists are Robert Langdon, esteemed Harvard professor of art history and religious symbology, and Sophie Neveu, hotshot cryptologist for the French equivalent of the FBI, who just happens to be the granddaughter of the curator of the Louvre. For backup, we have a hard-ass French chief of police and his bumbling underlings, a fabulously wealthy English aristocrat, an Albino monk with a horrific past, the near-fanatical high priest of a radical Catholic sect, and last (but not least!), Jacques Saunière, the recently-murdered grandfather of Sophie, curator of the Louvre, obsessed with Da Vinci and the lost "sacred feminine" goddess-worship religion that perished with Constantine's endorsement of Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, and Grand Master of the Priory of Sion, the ancient secret society charged with protecting the Holy Grail and the bloodline of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
Okay. So clearly subtlety and understatement are not Brown's M.O. here. The book begins with Langdon lecturing in Paris on the night of Saunière's murder. After discovering Langdon was supposed to meet with Saunière, the police call him down, trying to feel him out as a suspect. Before long Sophie shows up, bails him out, and off they go on a wild ride through Paris and London, being tailed closely by the police, and by crazed religious zealots, all the while frantically trying to decode the mysterious string of messages Saunière hid in the Louvre as he lay dying on the Grand Gallery floor, and to ascertain his relationship to the Priory of Sion and the Holy Grail before the secret of the Grail is captured by the zealots and destroyed along with Saunière himself.
I won't spoil more of the plot, because as critical as I am of it, the novel does manage to create suspense. However, some of the devices Brown uses to do this were quite irritating. A lot of the exposition came in flashbacks to various characters' pasts. Often times Brown would tell the flashback in very general terms, omitting key plot-relevant details. He would later tell it again under another pretext, revealing a little more, etc. Sometimes he would just stop short of giving key details ("...they opened box and were amazed at what was inside!!!" End of chapter.) He also tended to have about 3 storylines going on at once (Robert and Sophie, the police investigation, and the Opus Dei story arc) and bounced from one to the other each chapter. This always been a personal pet peeve of mine, but some may be more tolerant of it.
There were a few other irritating usage issues. Brown's prose is often unnecessarily dramatic. As I said, subtlety is not something you'll find in this novel. Brown is not an impartial narrator at all. He sort of guides the reader as to what they should be feeling or thinking at any specific part in the novel. This is fundamentally the most simplistic narrative style, and you often see it in short novels written for children. This is undoubtedly why the novel is so easy and engrossing to read - it requires very little from the reader intellectually.
Brown's characters, as I mentioned above, are unfortunately formulaic. Creating truly compelling characters is probably one of the hardest things to do as a writer, and it's not like I've ever done it, so I'm hardly one to criticize. That said, some of the ultimate motivations of the charatcers in this book just don't seem that plausible. The religious zealots are well-done, but mostly because we aren't expected to understand their rather perverse belief system. It's hard to ascertain exactly what drives, say, the police chief or the English aristocrat to be as dedicated as they are to their various causes. The main characters, both somewhat reluctant heroes, are pretty typical. You don't come to despise or like them, they're kind of just there.
Perhaps the most unusual and intriguing aspect of The Da Vinci Code is how it ties in aspects of Gnostic gospels and other less commonly discussed theories as to the origin and heritage of Christianity. I'm not really familiar with much of this stuff, so Brown's summary of them was news to me and it was quite interesting, to be sure. The same information is basically all available on E2 (try starting with the Prieure de Sion node). To me, it felt kind of strange to be receiving this history lesson in a popular-fiction murder mystery, however.
Despite these issues, The Da Vinci Code was still an engrossing, fun read. If you have time to kill, and think you could deal with the idiosyncrasies described above (I could), then by all means, check it out. It's not terribly deep or life-changing (unless you're a devout Catholic, in which case it might actually piss you off, because the author portrays the church in a fairly negative light). It kind of reminds me of Clive Cussler and other serial adventure-fiction writers. Not up for a Pulitzer anytime soon, but they sell well because they're fun.
Thanks to everyone who msg'ed - glad I wasn't the only one with issues about this book.