What I’m Reading: The Dante Club

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I saw The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl on the desk of nearly every English faculty member during my last few years of college. That led me to purchase it recently.

When I buy a book, I read it. I read the entire book, no matter how much I’m not enjoying it. It’s the principal of the thing. I do not feel this obligation with library books. The Dante Club is a book I should have borrowed.

The basic plot is about a series of murders in Boston just after the close of the Civil War. The murders mirror the punishments from different circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. During this same period, Henry Longfellow has begun translating Inferno which will be the first American version of Dante’s work. Assisting him in the monumental task are Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J.T. Fields (If these names are vaguely familiar, congratulations: you didn’t sleep through all of English class). Gradually these men are caught up in trying to solve the murders, along with fighting against the Harvard Corporation who wants to shut down their translation project.

I think the basic idea behind the plot is fascinating. Murders based on Dante’s horrific punishments is genius. Involving some of the great American poets and novelists of the time is also brilliant.

Unfortunately, I fell asleep every time I tried to read this novel. By the sixth chapter I was finally interested, but it did not last. As I said, I should have borrowed this one.

My biggest complaint was that I could not tell the characters apart. The four main characters were constantly mixed up in my mind, and I could not find any distinguishing characteristics within the dialogue. I would read and think, “Wait, I thought Holmes was back at home, but he’s here? Then who went home? Oh… Fields.” I was never able to differentiate between the four heroes until the last “canto” of the novel.

Second, the action sequences had inadequate pacing and held back the plot significantly. Action scenes should race, but these tended to plod. I kept waiting for the book to really get going, but it never really did. Last, I fell asleep every time I read the novel. Did I mention that already?

I can see why all of my literature professors were reading the book. If you are a literature geek, the book would probably be much more interesting. I also feel that with the help of a different editor, the book could have been much better. Pearl is definitely smart and knows Dante like the back of his hand. I just wish it had translated into a more exciting novel.

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