The Da Vinci Code

by Dan Brown

Cover image

Publisher: Doubleday
Copyright: March 2003
ISBN: 0-385-50420-9
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 464

Buy at Powell's Books

One really has to review this book on two different levels, I think. The first is as a puzzle-driven investigative romp through France, a fast-moving adventure reminiscent of any number of spy and detective novels. The second level is as an intriguing summary of one side of a debate about the history of the Christian religion.

As a part-detective, part-spy novel, it's a fairly good one. I wouldn't say that it particularly stood out, but it definitely kept me reading, and the pacing was excellent. The only flaw that really bothered me is with the narration, which falls into the trap of telling rather than showing quite a bit. The narrative voice always felt a bit stilted and forced to me, and at several points in the story, I felt like I was being led around by the nose rather than following the plot. Even worse, Brown tends to employ the utterly cheap and exasperating narrative hack of showing something to the viewpoint characters but not revealing it to the reader for several paragraphs or pages. Yes, this builds tension, but not in a way one wants. It is invariably annoying and does little for me except making me want to jump past sections of the book.

Of course, this isn't why people are talking about the book. It's popular because it lays out in detail the theory that Mary Magdalene (who was not a prostitute, incidentally; that's one of the things in the book that's rather well-supported by the available evidence) was the wife of Jesus Christ, one of his disciples, and the mother of his child. This isn't a new theory, but it's been a fringe theory that hasn't gotten a lot of mainstream attention before now.

If you've not heard this before, and you're not the sort to find the idea offensive (if you are, you're probably not the sort to share my taste in books in general), it's pretty interesting stuff. So are the details about Leonardo Da Vinci and the codes he embedded in his paintings, something that I'd not heard about before. Unfortunately, the theory is also presented as a pretty one-sided polemic, and therefore suitable only for a whetting of the appetite. If you're interested in really analyzing the theories about Mary Magdalene, expect no help here; this book picks one side of the debate and doesn't even bother to acknowledge another side.

That's the real flaw in the book both as a story and as an exploration of ideas: it has a strong feeling of shallowness about it. You sort of get to know the characters, but they seem like rather shallow people. One of the heroes is motivated largely by such a ridiculous overreaction to an incident in her past that it strains credibility to the breaking point and rather than invoking sympathy, mostly just makes you want to shake her. The ideas presented are interesting, but one gets the feeling there are all sorts of other sides to the story that are just being ignored in order to increase the plausibility of the favored theory. The narration continues to be annoying throughout the book, and the ending is strained at best (another review describes it as frantic backpeddling).

It's a good book for puzzle lovers and those who find historical trivia fascinating. I enjoyed it. But it's not a great book, nor is it particularly well-written. And if you're really interested in the theories about Mary Magdalene, I recommend the PBS special.

Update: It's become obvious since I originally read this book that both the theories about Mary Magdalene and, unfortunately, the bits about Da Vinci that I found very interesting are not only controversial but complete bunk. Much of it appears to be based on forged documents, invented theories that have already been refuted, and events with more credible alternate explanations. This makes the book even more pure fluff than it felt like at the time.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-01-24

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