Monday, March 10, 2014
Ripper by Isabel Allende
(Translated by Ollie Brock and Frank Wynne)
Harper, 478 pages, $28.99
Ripper is more famous at this point for its controversy than its literary quality. Isabel Allende said in an interview with NPR, “This book is tongue in cheek.” She also admitted that she was not a fan of the mystery genre, although her husband writes mysteries. Then the real slam came when she said, “I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke.” Many people picked on the “joke” aspect and thought she was being very disrespectful. Allende later clarified that her use of idiomatic English (Spanish is her primary language) misrepresented what she really meant. She meant that she would take mystery conventions and treat them ironically. I accept this, and it sounds like a valid goal.
What Allende has done because she’s NOT a mystery fan is to take the most popular aspects of the genre and toss it all together in a fruit salad-y kind of way. Cozy new age meets Navy SEAL meets groovy computer-savvy kids meets psycho killer meets tough guy cop meets a Lisbeth Salander wannabe meets every piece of research Allende did to prepare for writing a mystery. And in fact it’s more a romance than anything else. And she throws in a little woo-woo. Irony meets confusion, and confusion wins.
There certainly were parts of the book that were interesting to read. Almost every character gets a treatment, and sometimes it’s quite charming. Especially when she presents the various Latin American characters (please don’t lump all Spanish-speaking cultures together), it’s downright fascinating.
The basic story is that 17-year-old Amanda Martín is the daughter of Indiana Jackson, a new age healer (Reiki, aromatherapy, etc.), who is divorced from Bob Martín, the Deputy Chief of Police of San Francisco. Amanda is convinced that a serial killer is stalking San Francisco. She and an online crew of game players (including her grandfather, Indiana’s father) scattered around the world decide to catch the killer. Indiana’s boyfriend (a society playboy), a wannabe lover (the Navy SEAL), and a lovestruck client vie for Indiana’s attention and manage to get mixed up in the proceedings. Every character, however minor, is eccentric, every relationship is fraught. It makes for a long book.
It’s hard to know what to say the bottom line is. Allende is popular for a reason. She can make a story about a community and its interactions. Even in a throwaway part, she can say something interesting about a character. On the other hand, I hated all the men who vied for Indiana’s affection. They seemed so not worthy of her. They were homophobic or snobbish or stupid. Indiana was a ditzy mother at best and didn’t seem to deserve her daughter’s affection. The cop father blithely lets his father-in-law and 17-year-old daughter look at classified police material. So this is the bottom line, I guess: There was stuff to recommend it and stuff that just didn’t gel. Sigh.