A week or so ago I promised as a service to my readers to referee the dueling New York Times reviews of Angelology by Danielle Trussoni. Put aside the fact that one was technically in the New York Times Review of Books and the other in the paper – or the fact that they were not really side by side reviews – and focus instead on the very different reaction the book produced.
But first, let’s allow the publisher to introduce the book:
Sister Evangeline was just a girl when her father entrusted her to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in upstate New York. Now, at twenty-three, her discovery of a 1943 letter from the famous philanthropist Abigail Rockefeller to the late mother superior of Saint Rose Convent plunges Evangeline into a secret history that stretches back a thousand years: an ancient conflict between the Society of Angelologists and the monstrously beautiful descendants of angels and humans, the Nephilim.
For the secrets these letters guard are desperately coveted by the once-powerful Nephilim, who aim to perpetuate war, subvert the good in humanity, and dominate mankind. Generations of angelologists have devoted their lives to stopping them, and their shared mission, which Evangeline has long been destined to join, reaches from her bucolic abbey on the Hudson to the apex of insular wealth in New York, to the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris and the mountains of Bulgaria.
This was in fact the blurb that intrigued me enough to read the book (generously provided by the publisher in this case). But the same book produced two very different reactions.
Janet Maslin calls it “a class-obsessed, scholarship-spouting, minutiae-strewn thrill ride that follows the ‘Da Vinci Code’ model as loftily as it can.”
In contrast, Susan Cokal: “Sensual and intellectual, “Angelology” is a terrifically clever thriller — more Eco than Brown, without the cloudy sentimentalism of New Age encomiums or Catholic treatises.”
So if I had to choose side in this debate who would I declare the winner? I would have to side with Cokal but I can understand where Maslin is coming from to a degree.
I think it is fair to say that thrillers of every sort expect a certain suspension of judgment. You have to sit back and relax and enjoy the ride. Some authors strive for plausibility more than others but I have rarely come across thrillers where you say: yeah, I could see that happening. Let’s face it daily life ain’t all that thrilling for most of us.
I also think it is fair to say that Janet Maslin either skipped this step or has rather exacting standards. It is a book about angels, Janet. Were you expecting ripped from the headlines type plausibility here?
Secondly, Maslin seems to have not enjoyed the admittedly thick detail that the author uses to situate the story – in order to have some plausibility or at least a connection to history and legend. And this thick description, if you will, carries over into the book’s style overall.
For these reasons, it strikes me as the kind of book you simply have to jump into wholeheartedly for it to work; you have to pick up some momentum and rhythm to enjoy it. If you are constantly nit-picking and focused on the details as they pile up you will likely be turned off.
There is a somewhat difficult transition when the book flashes back to WWII Paris and I felt like the author focused too much on the emotional rivalry between Celestine and Gabriella in this section. It dragged whenever the focus was on the girl’s relationship instead of the larger mystery and Second Angelogical Expedition.
I myself tend to prefer tighter writing and less layered descriptions while Trussoni describes everything in great detail. But it gives the novel a sensual and Gothic feel – which I believe was intentional. If anything I think the love interest between Evangeline and Verlain was laid on a little too thick whereas the description involved in Angelology, as I noted, provide the historical and theological backstory.
Was the chase for the missing Lyre pieces at the end a little to convenient at times? Sure. Can the meticulous descriptions drag the story on occasion? Yes. Are the characters actions always plausible? Of course not. But just because a book has flaws doesn’t mean you should ignore the things it does well.
Lev Grossman, reviewing the book for Time, captures the mix well I think:
At times Angelology is little more than a light scaffolding built around the glittering edifice of its genuinely compelling premise. Trussoni’s handling of action is not deft, and the romance between Verlaine and Evangeline makes you long for the raw erotic chemistry between Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu.
But at other times, Angelology finds an almost hallucinatory power
I found Angelology to be a creative and imaginative thriller. As Cokal noted you have to enjoy a book that can weave together “angels of the Bible and Apocrypha, the myth of Orpheus, Bulgarian geography, medieval monastics, the Rockefellers, Nazis, nuns and musicology” into an evocative and entertaining story.
It isn’t perfect but if you dive in and just enjoy the ride while it lasts I think you will appreciate it more than if you try to analyze it as you read.
The thing that most astonished me about the Maslin review is that it was written by the woman who continues to rhapsodize about Dan Brown, a far more flagrant example of all the faults she cites than Trussoni (who is the much superior writer).