Despite this, or maybe because of it, Sarah decides to go to Prague, not only drawn by her fanatical love of Ludwig Van (Sarah calls him LVB, but I prefer to stick with Burgess's nomenclature), but to delve into the mystery of Sherbatsky's death -- suicide doesn't seem like a good fit in her opinion.
Great set up, yeah? Good mystery, gonna have some history thrown in, takes place in a wonderful city. So why just meh?
Mainly because I could see so much of it coming from a 1000 miles away, and because the prose relied a little too much on wit rather than substance. Not to say that the writing was bad, because it wasn't. Not all of it. The loving descriptions of Prague are wonderful, as are the asides regarding Beethoven and his work. Without spoiling too much, there is a scene where Sarah has the opportunity to see her idol play in the flesh, and it is as moving as anything you'll read. Beethoven is presented throughout the novel in all his gassy, contemptuous glory, but his musical genius and recurring deafness are handled beautifully. I actually got misty once or twice.
So I know ol' Magnus has got it in him (or her? Magnus is, in fact, two female writers, Christina Lynch and Meg Howery, the first a journalist/TV writer and the second a novelist). But, for me, the novelist's art got bogged down with what felt like very mechanical, quick, get 'er done journalistic style reporting and a tv writer's sense of plot and scene. Which for many isn't a bad thing. But for all of the originality of the set up, the authors rely on a bunch of cliches, which they try to tart up with graphic sex scenes, drug taking, stereotypical homosexuals (a seamstress gay man and a gun-loving lesbian, who also happens to be a Japanese Texan), and time travel. For me, it felt so formulaic and clever -- I can just see these two high-fiving each other because they managed to get a person with a disability (more on her later), a little person, both flavor of gays, a Hispanic person, AND an Asian person all in one story. Never mind that the entire staff working in Prague are either American or from an English speaking country. Never mind that the Lobkowicz heir, Prince Max Lubkowicz Anderson, is also American. How convenient! Actually, that's my problem with most of the elements of this novel -- they're all just so damn convenient.
And since we brought up the prince, well, since one exists in the story, I bet you can guess what happens. If you guessed that he seems a bit haughty and cold and rubs Sarah the wrong way, you'd be right. If you guessed that through a string of uncanny occurrences and impossible circumstances that Sarah and Prince Max are thrown together, forcing her to see his softer side and him to see her ... I'm not sure, which in turn forces them to fall madly in love, you'd be right again.
In fact, the only thing unexpected about Sarah's story at all, besides the fancy window trappings of her scholarship, is the way her sexuality is handled. While I believe the author's goal was to make Sarah a brilliant, independent, smart young woman who doesn't need NOBODY's permission to do to NOTHING, she comes off as a raunchy caricature, a la Sex in the City. I have no problem with people getting it on in the books I read, but, in my opinion, the sex in this novel is handled badly and used more as a deus ex machina than as an aspect of the protag. We're told that Sarah enjoys sex, but the way this enjoyment first manifests seems to come out of nowhere and is really, really, really creepy.
Speaking of deus ex machinas, there are enough of them in this book that the gun loving lesbian Japanese Texan could have lined 'em up as targets in a shooting gallery and had herself quite a go. Characters do and say things that don't make sense until a couple of sentences later, and then the reader says, "Aha!" It is so set up. And Sarah is always in the right place at the right time. This choice in how to move the point along is what, to me, gave the entire book the feeling of an author/s doing the high-five, we're-so-goddamn-clever thing. And it really makes the story wear thin by the end of the book.
There are a couple of high points, however. Secondary characters Nicolas Pertusato and Pollina, the aforementioned little person and blind girl, respectively, bring a lot of interest to the novel. How could they not? Nico is a mysterious creature with an unusual knowledge of Prague history, and Pollina, despite her blindness and being only eleven, is a virtuoso piano player. She also happens to be extremely religious and a genius, despite the fact that her parents have abandoned her to the care of her gay, Hispanic butler named Jose and an elderly mastiff named Boris (who just happened to be a retired bomb sniffing canine, which comes in really handy in the final scenes!). Pollina lives alone but for Jose and Boris in an old Boston mansion chock full of curiosities her globe trotting parents have brought home, and Nico turns out to come by all of his esoteric knowledge because he was once, 400 years prior, the jester of Tico Brahe. As outlandish as these two might sound to you, they come off as far more believable than either Sarah or Max, or any of the other characters, really, and each time they are onscreen, so to speak, I wanted more. It seemed a shame that such wildly original characters, particularly Pollina, were used as just more cogs in the old deus ex machina.
Even the villain of the story, icy Republican senator and previous double spy Charlotte Yates, is a cardboard cutout who also reads like a rejected Sex in the City character. Her story is so flat and boring, I can't even really be bothered with it. Like everyone and everything else, she is a cog, and you can see her twisting her proverbial moustache and rubbing her palms together a mile away. At first I thought she was a parody of Sarah Palin, and certainly some of the things her media team make her do and her bottomless ambition are inspired by our Lovely Lady of the Russian Watch, she's far too smart to be anything more than loosely related to Palin. She probably would have been more interesting if she'd been dumb as a rock and dressed in suits rather than a Machavellian decked out in designer evening duds.
Despite my many complaints, this was actually a kind of fun read. If you like very quick paced stories that throw in just about everything but the kitchen sink and then tie it up in a shiny bow and then the prince and the girl from the wrong side of the tracks fall in love and you don't have to think too much or invest too much, you'll enjoy this. It's is pure brain candy, though the weird label kind that you've never heard of that you find at Big Lots or the Dollar Store. For me, in the end, it was a little too glib, a little too neat, a little too weirdly sexual, and a little too desperately clever. However, there were glimpses of really wonderful writing, so I hope the second book has more of that and less of the "Look how cute and smart we are!" vibe. Someone will have to let me know, though. I wasn't impressed enough with this one to pick up the second.