The Broker by John Grisham
In the author’s notes in The Broker John Grisham admits he has a high-tech phobia. His word processor he writes, is a thirteen-year-old piece of equipment. "When it stutters. . . When it finally quits I’m probably done too." I fear the stuttering & stumbling has begun.
Grisham claims to love Italy and he certainly loves Italian food. But the stuttering begins when he tries to compete with Dan Brown’s two fast-moving, history-rich novels, Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code.
I picked up this book after reading Frank Bruni’s report of the interview he did recently with John Grisham at an Italian Restaurant in Manhattan (NYTimes, Jan. 19, 2005). It seems that since his success as a writer over the last fifteen years, Grisham has become something of a gourmet. He especially likes Italy and Italian food. So for his latest novel he headed to Italy where he took up residency in Bologna, got to know the city, made the rounds to all of Bologna’s best restaurants (there are many), took some Italian lessons, went home and wrote his book. The result is The Broker, a poor example of John Grisham and an even worse example of the sleuthing in art and history that make Dan Brown’s explorations of 16th century Rome (Angels and Demons) or historic Paris, London and Scotland (The Da Vinci Code) so great.
In my review of Dan Brown’s novels (Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code) I likened his style to a mix of Dorothy Dunnett and Michael Crichton insofar as his skill at setting the historic and geographic scene for his novels is similar to theirs. Indeed, these three are real pros. I hesitate to name the author of this book in the paragraph for fear online searchers will think I’m putting them in the same category.
Here’s what disappointed me with Grisham’s latest novel: a sleazy corporate lawyer becomes engaged in international trafficking of spy technology. The secret services of four countries chase him and he dupes the entire U.S. intelligence community. In the last chapter Grisham tries to make his protagonist a hero, a loving father and a grandfather who, having beaten the entire international spy community, heads back to Bologna to take up with his Italian tutor. In short, after painting a picture of corporate greed, white collar crime, and Washington insiders, Grisham wants us to open our hearts to this loser from corporate America. Give me a break.
You learn about Bologna in this novel and about medieval cities. Grisham writes "the streets of Milano fanned out in all directions like a spider web" (page 291). Excellent, he looked at a map of Milano! In fact, this is how medieval cities grew: in concentric circles inside the city walls with radial streets extending outward through town gates like spokes on a wheel. Bologna is not such a good example of this because the Roman grid pattern of the city is still so well preserved it tends to dominate the inner city.
Grisham visited the major sites of Bologna, too, not just its finest restaurants: San Petronio (the main cathedral of Bologna, begun in 1390), the 16th century Piazza del Nettuno with its wonderful fountain of Neptune, the Medieval tower of the Asinelli, and the landmark 18th century sanctuary of San Luca on the hill above Bologna. This last is connected to the city by a covered portico three and a half kilometers long (including 666 arches). If you are ever in Bologna you should plan to hike up to the sanctuary. The rise is only about 245 meters (about 800 feet total). It takes about an hour and a half and on a good day the view is extraordinary.
You will learn that one of Bologna’s nicknames is "la turrita." The name derives from it once having as many as two hundred medieval towers. Most have been torn down but the nickname remains. Grisham gives us a little history of the medieval city and reasons why it had so many towers. The reason is, and his information is correct, that medieval families built tall towers in the 12th and 13th centuries as the last line of defense in case the city wall was breached by marauding armies. The family would retreat into the tower with provisions and wait for the invaders to move on. In time, the tower became a status symbol. The richer your family, the taller your tower (this piece of medieval architecture always reminds me of the nuclear bomb shelters in the US in the late 50s and 1960s.)
The Italian in Grisham’s book is good. The proof readers missed "cavalfiori" though ("cauliflower"; it should be cavolfiore). Worse yet, he made the mistake of calling the gate of Santo Stefano the "Porto San Stefano," which means the "port" of Santo Stefano (page 264). (The correct form would be "Porta di Santo Stefano.") He did the same with Porta Ravegnana (page 175), calling it "Porto Ravegnana." One other mistake or inconsistency that drives me crazy is that he has the village of Bazzano 15 "kilometers" west of Bologna, which it is. But Milan’s Malpensa airport is 27 "miles" from downtown, which it is. But can’t he be consistent? Does he want us to think in kilometers or miles?
Will I forgive him and his proofreaders for these minor indiscretions? I would have if the book had been a real thriller and if he had put some serious effort into it. But I’m not seeing that. I see a nice vacation in Italy turned into a mediocre John Grisham novel.
Now, here’s a fellow who sold the film rights to his first book, The Firm, for $600,000 before the book was even published. He’s written a book every year for the last 15 years. He should be a pro, right? Can’t I expect him to put at least as much work and research into his novels as the people he’s trying to compete with? He even has a Swiss bank – in Zurich – involved in one of his chase scenes, complete with secure basement vaults and drive-ins, just like Dan Brown did in the Da Vinci Code (remember Chapter 43 with the Paris Branch of the Bank of Zurich?).
Frank Bruni reports that when he met John Grisham for lunch at Fresco by Scotto (online here, the waiter was apparently surprised when Grisham ordered first the risotto and then the farfalle – two pasta courses and no main course. Now, quite honestly, I don’t care what Mr. Grisham has for lunch and surely he doesn’t watch his carbohydrate intake as I do. But still, in The Broker, his protagonist who is in a witness protection program in Italy learns, among other things that an Italian NEVER has cappuccino after 10:30 a.m. (espresso, yes, but not cappuccino.) Well, there are other Italian food taboos that you also would never do (or almost never!): eat bread with your pasta, especially in Bologna, and eat two pasta courses but no main course.
I can’t recommend John Grisham’s book. It’s not really very entertaining and it won’t really help you prepare for your trip to Europe. Alas, maybe he should just stick to lawyer books and leave the serious international intrigue to the real pros.
PostScript: This book has been reviewed by 86 readers on Amazon.com and has achieved an average of three and a half stars out of five. That ranks it as mediocre by the general public, not good or excellent. If you have time for mediocrity, are going to Bologna, or if you are a John Grisham fan, this one might be for you.
Until next time,