At the end of the Author’s Note, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason state that they are “deeply indebted to those two [Italian Renaissance and Princeton] settings of the the mind.” In the end, I think this book was more about its setting at Princeton than anything else. The setting overwhelmed the plot.
I think The Rule of Four suffers from its frequent comparisons to The Da Vinci Code. The latter is part of a relatively new genre. I’m not sure what you’d call it — historical research thriller? The Rule of Four is less about a centuries-old mystery surrounding a Renaissance book than it is about Princeton and four guys who became friends there.
In The Da Vinci Code, you see characters working on puzzles and watch as they figure out the answers in real time. The biggest mistake the authors of The Rule of Four make is they don’t do that. In this book, a character will solve a riddle offstage and share it with another character later. That made me feel cheated because I didn’t see it happen. The authors also frequently jump back and forth between time. It wasn’t difficult to follow, but it stopped the forward momentum of the plot. As I mentioned earlier, though, the real star of the book in the authors’ minds is the setting. The setting is lovingly, painstakingly rendered in this book to the point that it overwhelms the plot. The writing was good if you’re looking for description, but aside from that, it was mainly allusory (and for the dummies reading the book, the characters describe where the allusions came from).
I almost laughed out loud at the poor narrator at the end. I don’t think it would be giving too much away to say that a 26-year-old man waxing retrospective about events that happened only four years ago and attempting to sound as wizened and reflective as if it happened 40 years ago just didn’t work for me. That, to me, was the youth of the authors showing. I suspect they’ll cringe when they read that chapter in say 20 years or so.
I think the novel is being done a real disservice when it’s compared to The Da Vinci Code. As a coming-of-age novel, it works fine. It wasn’t a real page-turner, per se. I had trouble really caring about the characters. They’re much more realistic and less wooden than Dan Brown’s cardboard cutout stand-ins for plot advancement, but there was still something lacking. Even when I learned Paul is an orphan or Tom nearly died in the car accident that killed his father, I didn’t really feel affected by that. Later on, during the novel’s climax, several bad things happen all at once, and I just didn’t care.
I’m not really sure why this book is the darling of the critics right now. I don’t want to send the message that this book was awful. It wasn’t, or I wouldn’t have finished it. At the same time, the book shows a lack of maturity on the part of the writers. They must not be long out of college, and it shows, because they are still mired in that love-affair with academia. They don’t know about poopy diapers or bills, and it shows. There is little that resembles real life for the over-30 set, but I imagine younger twentysomethings will find much to love in this book. Had I read it at that age, I might have enjoyed it more. It did make me wax nostalgic for college, I admit. But as Thomas Wolfe noted, you can’t go home again. Even if places don’t change (though they often do), we do, and our perspective makes it difficult for us to see things the same way as we once did. Maybe that’s my problem with this book. I’m too far removed from 22 to appreciate it.