The Baltimore Boys – Joël Dicker

I was a bit disappointed by the heavily promoted first book from Joel Dicker (see my review of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair here), but this time around I was more than pleasantly surprised.

Once again it’s a novel about an author writing a book, this time featuring the (fictional) author’s earlier life story of growing up with his two cousins. The life journey of the kids – the Baltimore Boys – is told with love, care, and just the right amount of detail. The book is full of different perspectives on family and success, love and disenchantment, though packaged and delivered with an over abiding sense of compassion. The author gets his characters and makes them come alive on the page.

The plot unfolds smoothly, and the various story threads come together in a near perfect weave as we are brought up to date.

Whereas the first book was too long and self indulgently involved, I did not find the Baltimore Boys to be that way at all. If anything, there were occasions when I wanted to know a tad more.

The story of these kids growing up in America is really a story that also features their families. The respective parents and one set of grandparents feature extensively, and their characterizations seemed authentic, and nuanced. There is one part of this accuracy about the family, however, that concerns me, to which I will return later.

I read and reread one outstanding scene where a movie executive lectures the author about how books are dying and moves are the only thing worth having – apart from money, of course! Brilliant. It’s where naivety meets the gold standard of the free market, and damn the consequences.

This novel is highly entertaining, and well worth your time. Don’t bother with the other book. Just read this.

Before I forget, some praise for the translator: Alison Anderson. If it didn’t say on the book that it had been translated from French, I would not have known. The text flowed fluently. Great job Alison!

Now, the part of the story that troubles me most is to do with Judaism. The main characters are Jewish. How do we know that? It says so – once I think – but apart from that, there are only two outward signs of this, and minor ones at that.

Warning: Plot spoilers ahead!

When there is a funeral, there’s a reference to putting stones on the grave, which is a Jewish tradition. Similarly, the phraseology used to remember the deceased is straight out of Jewish mourning rituals. But that’s it. There’s no mention of the festivals, barmitzvah, or even any passing reference to anything Jewish. To put it another way, the Jewishness of the characters brought absolutely nothing to the story. (So why include it?) I found this to be terribly sad. If it is an accurate representation, then it’s a disaster for American Jewry to have so completely lost their religious identity. What troubles me most, is that this may come from the author’s own world. In other words, it may be autobiographical.

The situation does not detract from the quality of the book. So, if you are still reading, note my recommendation remains that this is indeed a novel worthy of your time.