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Book Review: The Rule of Four – by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

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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.

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About Dana Huff

  • Maria

    Can anyone answer that question?

  • Maria

    Where do paul and tom go while gil is getting their dinner?

  • Hi!
    people i need someone to explain to me the end of the book!
    write to:

  • I found The Da Vinci Code fun but not especially earthshaking. Perhaps that’s because I’d already read some of the stuff he borrowed from, and didn’t find his departures from the borrowed stuff especially believable.

    I’m about halfway through The Rule of Four now, and it just strikes me as better storytelling. That may be because I haven’t read the stuff it’s derived from, though.

    Tom Knapp

  • Bent

    Alright, we get it. You’re in love with Princeton.
    And by the way, I DID laugh out loud at the poor narration in the last chapter. I felt like I was reading high school fiction.
    Very dissapointing , not even close to the Da Vinci Code.

  • Simon

    I enjoyed Rule of Four and think Huff’s review is spot on. I really expected Tom to be, at least, in his late 50’s in the last chapter given the introspective, stock-taking narration. There were moments of interesting insight but a great deal of flat spots as well. I wonder if that is a feature of the dual authorship. I have done some very basic code searching in the ROF text and have not found anything yet. The HP Latin text can be viewed on line for some real code searching.

  • Murray Shoolbraid

    Gill is again wrong in poking fun [to use a euphemism] at the poor authors; he may know Italian but they know their Latin, and Jerome wrote in Latin, not Italian.
    The more I think about the book, the more I admire it. I’ve known about the Hypnerotomachia for years, and I’m glad now that a lot [a LOT] of folks are now discussing it. I’m going to devour the English translation from Thames and Hudson when I get it.

  • Murray Shoolbraid

    I’m a bit confused over Gill Raimondo’s comment [no. 5 above] – I didn’t notice any Italian with w etc. in it. GR means “The Rule of Four”, not “The Da Vinci Code”. But “cornuta” would be a mistake, I grant you. That all apart, it’s an enjoyable book for bookish historians who like a little mystery, AND a very good story about friendship, loyalty, etc. As for Dana Huff’s scorn at the youth of the authors, well, they’re young, for God’s sake.
    – And what was that about suspension of disbelief?

  • tony

    I am enjoying the rule of four immensely and am beginning to wonder if the authors could have possibly laid a code similar to the one described in the story, in their text.

    I am trying things like the first letter of the first word in each chapter and other mentioned ciphers, but to no avail – as yet.

    Is anyone out there as curious/suspicious as myself? Please share your findings.-Tony

  • Gill Raimondo

    First basic mistake is the word “Cornuta”. Should be “Cornuto” as Moses was male and not female! Very obvious elementary mistake in Italian which completely throws the code! Also Italian alphabet doesn’t have 26 letters – there is no J, K, W or Y, which again makes a mockery of the “code”! Sorry guys, but you should have done your research! Actually the Da Vinci Code is jam packed full of very very serious, basic mistakes in Italian – which is a real shame!

  • Mike

    Don’t believe the comparisons to the DaVinci Code. They are totally off base. This book is more in line with The Dante Club. It’s not a big action book, but concetrates more on history and literature, and the writing puts Dan Brown’s Grisham like 10 grade prose to shame. Check it out.

  • I’ve also heard all the comparisons to The Da Vince Code. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

  • This review was chosen for Advance.net. You will be able to find it on newspaper sites including Cleveland.com.

  • Eric Olsen

    excellent, articulate review – those Huffs are writing mofo’s – thanks and welcome!