Friday, February 24, 2017

Review: Conclave

What a difference a few months make. Conclave was released in November 2016, before the political and cultural turmoil of the Trump presidency. I finished this book weeks into the tenure of the new U.S. President, and the politics of the Catholic Conclave struck me completely differently than they would have a scant month before.

Conclave sounded like such a great read: suspenseful, intriguing, and just fluff 'n trash enough to feed a craving. When I saw it on sale as I just happened to be strolling past the display, I thought it was kismet.

Imagine my surprise at finding myself bored early in the story.

A snap of excitement occurred as the story began with the death of the Pope (hopefully no spoiler alert was needed). Then author Robert Harris introduced so much expository information that was, frankly, tedious.

Harris takes readers inside the otherwise closed doors of this select society. Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, is riddled with guilt and susceptible to suspicion, and it is he whose tasks are conducted with mind-numbing detail.

To be fair, it's an accurate revelation of the tedium behind the beauty. The author faithfully shared details, facts, history, and trivia early in the book that, alas, dragged the momentum of the story to a crawl.While that may have been the point, I would have preferred a more balanced tapestry.

Thankfully, Harris softballed a few clues to reward faithful readers, starting with an unexpected range of international representation and a surprise contestant who slipped into the Conclave as the doors were closing to the world. (Well, almost closing: Lomeli stayed abreast of literally everything inside and outside of the Conclave, which seemed disingenuous to the spirit of the proceedings.)

The intrigue finally got intriguing as we met the international Conclave, the lead contenders of whom, in turn, revealed how they were less deserving than the next. These are the people with power in the Catholic Church: older, wealthy (mostly white) men with naked ambition they unsuccessfully concealed with faltering piety. Each had a sin ripe for exposure, and each was surprisingly similar to the rest (individual sensational sin aside). Each clique was power-hungry and clamoring for their seat at the right hand of the Father. No one was spared. Well, almost no one.

Only one character stood out, in the end: the perfect divergence from the parade of flawed men who all thought they deserved The Prize. That character, that antidote to Power, is the entire reason people should read this book.

The author completely lost me when he introduced the explosive ending that occurred outside the Conclave. Perhaps it was realistic, perhaps it was suitable for the world stage, but I am weary of what feels like the fallback position of every writer drawing "evil" with the same splotchy, faulty pen. Also, I was surprised the invisibility of women, except in certain circumstances, usually of servitude to the men — which may indicate more about the church than the author, but still struck me as antediluvian, even in context.

I cannot describe it with the same breathless praise of other critics whose reviews were published when the book was first published in November 2016. Perhaps that alone is praise enough: that the landscape in which I find myself is as merciless as the fictional world of power-hungry, flawed Catholic cardinals in Conclave.

Despite its flaws — maybe even because of them — I would recommend this book, if only to discuss it with other readers who may have a different perception than I.

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