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The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

I've mentioned before that, if all a historical fiction novel has going for it is the history, I lose interest in the book entirely. I need, personally, for there to be a twist, something unique in the story that keeps me going, and The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl offers such a twist.

In the troubled times of post-Civil War Boston, two strange things are happening at once: the first, a string of murders with strange elements, such as maggots and burned feet; the other, a group of poets (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and their publisher, J.T. Fields) gathering together to write the first American translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. The two happenings seem unrelated, almost incidental, until the astute minds of Longfellow's so-called "Dante Club" discover one horrifying fact: the murders that are terrifying the people of Boston are almost identical matches to punishments in The Inferno's various circles of Hell.

The cast of characters is immense and varied, leaving no one out--all the poets' families make appearances, as do Harvard faculty, Harvard students, the mayor, the governor, countless soldiers and police officers, thieves and ne'er-do-goods, and even a shamefully lovable drunk Italian by the name of Bachi--and Pearl works to capture both the political and social air of a city and a country still reeling from the Civil War and the mystery and fear of haunting murders and the writers who are trying to solve them.

For me, the biggest problem but also near-to biggest joy with the book was Pearl's writing style. Incredibly atmospheric and dense, Pearl seemed to want to create a book that not only took place in the 1860s, but felt as though it was being written then, too. The descriptions are old-fashioned and in some places very verbose, and he works to build an entire world in every paragraph, leaving nothing out. Sometimes, this was a wonderful effect, but other times, it was frustrating, because I didn't want to spend six pages on the history of some strange element of Boston, I wanted to find my way to the action. The first 100 pages, especially, sets up characters and places more than it does provide a clear plot, and I found that my reading pace slowed to a snail's as I was trudging through extremely detailed, dense language.

Once I hit about page 120--the second "canticle" of the book--the action and, consequently, my interest began to pick up. This is where Pearl's style is absolutely wonderful, because there's an almost surreal mysticism surrounding the story. I actually went out in the course of reading this book and bought a copy of Dante's Divine Comedy because the book made me want to understand more about a story that these men are willing to fight for, risk their careers for, and even possibly die for if their investigation of the crimes goes awry. Even the political undercurrents of the poets versus the Harvard administration were interesting because of how Pearl built them together.

I am not sure it's a book I would re-read--it's taken me weeks and despite my appreciation of Pearl's style and the atmosphere, I am not sure I have it in me to read the whole thing again--but it was ultimately enjoyable. I rarely found myself too annoyed with the overwhelming history (and literature!) lessons, if only because I knew that someone would die or a body discovered in the later pages, and had the promise of murders and mayhem to spur me on.


the forest-dweller

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