Ever since the phenomenal success of Dan Brown's bestselling novel THE DA VINCI CODE, readers have been deluged by books that try to replicate Brown's formula for success, with mixed results. Grouping Michael Gruber's latest novel, THE BOOK OF AIR AND SHADOWS, with these DA VINCI CODE knockoffs, however, would be a mistake. Gruber's breathless yet elegant storytelling, well-honed in his previous (but very different) suspense novels, elevates this literary thriller well beyond mere imitator.
Sure, Gruber's novel has a code, an historical, literary-related mystery and plenty of sexual tension. But it also contains effective plotting, genuine character development and masterful storytelling --- all of which combine to make readers care about these characters at least as much as they care about the manuscript that is at the center of their obsessions.
It all begins with a fire at a struggling used bookshop. When a valuable set of books is severely damaged in the fire, two young bookshop employees, Carolyn Rolly and Albert Crosetti, take the books home to see what can be salvaged. Under the damaged leather bindings, Albert discovers some manuscript pages. Carolyn dismisses the papers as mere wastepaper, but Albert perseveres, deciphering their nearly-illegible script until he's convinced that the manuscript is a letter bearing a reference to a previously unknown Shakespeare play, as well as some enciphered pages giving clues as to its whereabouts.
The two take the pages to noted manuscript expert Andrew Bulstrode, who seems skeptical about the manuscript's provenance but nevertheless offers the pair a small sum for it. But could Bulstrode simply be hiding his own excitement about the manuscript's true value?
Fast forward several months later. Bulstrode visits intellectual property lawyer Jake Mishkin to inquire about the copyright status of --- you guessed it --- a long-unpublished manuscript. During his meeting with Mishkin, Bulstrode seems nervous, frightened even, more than eager to pass the original manuscript over to Mishkin for safekeeping. Bulstrode's fears seem well founded when, only a day after their meeting, he is discovered brutally murdered. Who else is on the hunt for these manuscript pages? Mishkin knows nothing of Albert Crosetti and the manuscript's discovery, nor does he know anything about the enciphered pages, which Crosetti still possesses. As both men pursue the truth from different angles, they grow closer to answers --- and to danger.
Alternating chapters follow Mishkin and Crosetti's stories, which are slightly offset from one another chronologically. Each chapter also ends with an excerpt from the Bracegirdle letters that are the object of their investigations. This complex storytelling method allows readers to feel like they, too, are getting closer to solving the puzzle at the novel's heart. Particularly in the chapters told from Mishkin's unskilled, rambling, almost stream-of-consciousness first-person point of view, it also gives readers a glimpse into these characters' personalities and will make them even more invested in finding the clues before it's too late.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 7, 2011