Book Review: A Guide For The Perplexed

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An enthusiastic thank you to W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. for sharing this title with the Literary Hoarders.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dara Horn’s intricate novel, but what struck me right from the start was the author’s intellect.  A Guide For The Perplexed is a smart read that will appeal to lovers of both the thriller and the tech genres.  This book has a foot firmly planted in each.

Your protagonist here is Josie Ashkenazi; a software prodigy whose ideas for recording people’s lives turns into a multi-million dollar company.  Always wise beyond her years, Josie knew from a young age that her ability to analyze and categorize was something special.  Put into code, Josie’s brainchild becomes an application that records everything that its users do.  Photo albums, diaries and sticky notes are things of the past.  Can’t recall where you put your keys?  Josie’s app will show you.  Want to reminisce your child’s 4th birthday party?  Her app will do that too.  What she underestimates, however, is that her brilliance can also put her into great danger.  An Egyptian library invites her to visit as a consultant, and Josie accepts (after some persuasion by her envious sister Judith).  We know from the book’s start that this business trip winds up with Josie’s abduction, but what we don’t know is what her abductors want, or what they’ll do to her once they’ve borrowed her genius for their own purposes.

If this plot isn’t quite enough, then let me share with you the pre-plot; one that takes place a century earlier.  The main character of this story is Soloman Schechter, a Cambridge professor whose passion for medieval archives takes him to the dusty depths of a Cairo synagogue.  Here he discovers everything he’s ever wanted: enough transcribed documents to keep him busy for years.  The one thing that Soloman and Josie have in common is the writings of an ancient philosopher, whose work becomes an obsession for both.  The current that runs beneath both of these story lines mixes faith, science and the question of free will.  What happens when every moment is recorded?  What happens when nothing is ever forgotten?

What I liked most about this book was its imagination.  Dara Horn penned a truly original adventure, which offered everything from multi-layered characters to over-arching philosophical questions.  I thought Josie was terrific, even though her need to logically process all information often clouded her personal relationships.  Sometimes, brilliance has a price.  But, Josie is a character that you can get behind, because she’s a smart woman whose mental agility does not lessen in the face of fear.  In short, she’s a tough cookie, and I liked her right from the start.  You will too.

At times, however, A Guide For The Perplexed felt just the slightest bit disjointed.  The juxtaposition of the Josie/Soloman story lines periodically felt strained.  That’s not to say that I did not understand the logic behind the comparisons; it was there. Recording every waking detail of everyone’s lives is not necessarily the best idea, and the warnings were leaping from the pages.  But, the link between Josie and Soloman felt like a reach on a few occasions, even in the midst of the shared philosophy.

The story lines of Josie and her sister Judith, however, were very clearly drawn.  Years of envy lead Judith to do the unthinkable, and the question that pervades the book is whether Josie’s genius is capable of true forgiveness.  What can be wholly illogical is a human relationship.  You can’t code your way through emotions, and watching these two wildly different siblings cope was very interesting.  I found this part of the novel to be quite engrossing, and heartfelt.

The novel’s end is surprisingly abrupt.  After so many pages of back and forth with the lead characters, it was a bit of a shock to have a resolution that came about that quickly.  While the end of the book is not a disappointment, it was just dangerously close to being “too clean” of a break.  Even though it included a great sadness, I was left wanting when it came to more than one of the book’s characters.  That must mean that I was invested, which of course is a good thing.  I did, however, love how the book closed with Josie’s daughter Tali. That was terrific.  I grinned at the possibilities that lay before her, and could even see a spin-off story starring her character.  Her depth and perception were very promising.

Overall, A Guide For The Perplexed is a read that’s worth your time.  It’s wickedly clever, and suspenseful in all the right places. 3.5 stars!

Literary Hoarders Elizabeth