Due to a comic misunderstanding, I unexpectedly wound up with a copy of The Lost Symbol on my shelf. I hadn’t really planned to read Dan Brown’s latest opus, but since it was there, I figured I’d see if it was as bad as I thought it would be. The short answer? No. It was actually worse.
But let’s start with the things that Brown actually does well in the book. It’s hardly fair to lambaste him for the bad stuff if there’s no recognition that he does get a few things right.
Like The Da Vinci Code before it, there is no question that The Lost Symbol is a page-turner. Brown does have a talent for knowing how to break chapters and flow the action in such a way that the reader wants to keep going. And when you consider how little happens in the story, really, it’s to the author’s credit that he’s able to maintain momentum.
I was also impressed that he had an understanding of the inluences and ideas of the founding fathers of the United States. I doubt Brown has ever read John Shields’ The American Aeneas (or had the pleasure of sitting through any of his American literature classes), but he makes a point of showing that the men who were the backbone of the early US government were profoundly influenced by the classics, and rather than strictly putting forth ideas based on Christian tenets, they were actually Deists who wanted an exchange of religious ideology. It’s not a huge part of the book, but I was happy to see it.
The Lost Symbol’s other big positive is the presence of a strong female heroine/sort-of love interest who is smart and over the age of 50 (I’d guess). I wasn’t always perfectly happy with how she was written (but that applies to all the characters – more on that in a bit), but it would have been awfully easy to cast a piece of cheesecake as the mandatory female instead. Given who the majority of Brown’s readers probably are, I think this wasn’t necessarily a bold choice but it does show learning curve.
Now, let’s move on to the bad stuff. Much is made in many reviews of Brown’s writing style, which is indeed annoying and frequently awful. Sentence construction is awkward, and I often find myself wanting to break out a red pen to make corrections. Even so, I could put up with Brown’s writing foibles if The Lost Symbol didn’t suffer in a number of other areas as well.
Foremost among these is the fact that The Lost Symbol is entirely too predictable. I figured out very early on both of the primary “twists”, and Brown’s attempts at keeping the reader in the dark were sad and painful.
I also had a big, big problem with the fact that the book is packed full of characters who are supposed to be smart, but do stupid things and are surprised at the results at every turn. Worse, the book relies on them doing these stupid things to keep the action moving. Robert Langdon is supposed to be a brilliant symbologist and a Harvard professor, but he keeps falling for obvious traps and struggling to solve the simplest of mysteries over and over and over again. I would picture him like the picture of Gomer Pyle at the beginning of this column, mentally thinking “Golly!” What’s really sad is that I think Brown thinks Langdon is a fictional representation of his own persona…which makes me think that the author goes around looking perpetually surprised at things that most people would find mundane.
Worst of all, though, the book is dull. You just can’t have a 500+ page novel where the mysteries are obvious and the characters are (mostly) stupid without having that be the case. It hurtles from one scene to the next, frequently employing overly expository flashbacks, to a conclusion that is wholly unsatisfying. Once you strip away a couple of the big reveals, there’s just not much left to care about, including the reason the entire plot is set into motion.
Obviously, I can’t in good faith recommend The Lost Symbol as worthwhile reading. I have a hard time imagining that many people will enjoy it. There was a lot of hullabaloo about Brown taking a lot of time on this novel as he had something really amazing and masterful in the works, and I can’t help but wonder if he was believing his own hype, or if he was just trying to power through some writer’s block by employing cliches and sloppy plot devices.