Monday, November 23, 2009

Cannonball Read, Book 3: Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter

I was really sad that I didn't like this book. I'd read The Emperor of Ocean Park a few years back and loved it -- Carter combined good scholarly writing with just enough tension and plot to make 500 pages fly by.

Palace Council didn't fulfill the promise of that other book, though. It starts out well. We meet our characters, all living in Harlem near the end of its Renaissance -- there's Eddie, a famous award-winning author, Aurelia, the upper-class woman he's hopelessly in love with, and a number of other upper class characters from Harlem society, including Langston Hughes and peripherally, many other important figures from the time, including Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. The vaguely sinister conspiracy is introduced and you start to get involved in the story.

And then, somewhere along the line, it starts to go wrong. Aurelia does things that seem completely out of character without any explanation. Clues lead the reader astray and not in a pleasurable way. Mysteries are introduced and never resolved. The villains of the story seem to just magically always know how to appear at the exact worst moment. And the worst part is that the conclusion seems somehow tacked on -- it's built up for hundreds of pages and then the resolution is just blah. It's like eating a huge Thanksgiving dinner, but the only thing offered for dessert is stale graham crackers.

I probably wouldn't have been so frustrated if it weren't for the fact that Carter is really a good writer. This is a book that has a passage like this "The American Angle...involved the determination to stay far ahead of everyone in the world but, at the same time, to keep everything exactly the same. We wanted endless technological progress that would never alter society one iota. We wanted to dominate the world without suffering any consequences."
And this: "Her hand on his back was affectionate but tentative, the touch of a woman who knows that her man is in love with someone else, and that her own perch in his life is so precarious that the stiff wind of a single argument would blow her away." Stephen Carter is smart and has really interesting things to say, so it's just really disappointing that the book ends up so...meh.

This book might still be worth a read if you just decide from the beginning not to care about the actual mystery and read it for the fascinating descriptions of Harlem society and a new look at the culture wars of the 60s. But if you do that, you might as well stop reading about 150 pages before the end and save yourself some irritation.

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