My review of North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo ran today in the Boston Globe.
I’ve never been a fan of James Bond movies. Apart from the cartoonish stories and retrograde sexism, I just never found James Bond very interesting as a character.
He’s pure wish fulfillment, a man who’s handsome, with intellectual and physical faculties that allow him to surmount any obstacle, is permitted to bend and break the law at his own discretion in the service of his goals, and can have any woman he wants.
He’s entirely characterized by superficialities, and utterly lacking in depth. It’s like a maladjusted 11-year-old boy’s fantasy.
I’ve also never been a fan of genre fiction, which I find to be plagued by the kind of writing I describe above. To make a big overgeneralization, it always strikes me as shallow archetypes moving through fairly banal plot loaded with “surprise” twists you can see coming well in advance. So maybe I wasn’t the target audience for “North of Boston.” In fact, I definitely wasn’t. So if you know you enjoy genre fiction, or thrillers in general, take my criticism with a grain of salt.
The book’s protagonist, Pirio Kasparaov, is, like James Bond, great at everything. She’s attractive, well read, and fairly affluent, the beneficiary of her family’s successful perfume company, where she works as an executive. But she’s also a down-to-earth gal who hangs out with fisherman and other blue collar types at seedy dives, and volunteers to bait fishing traps on a boat in Boston Harbor for her friend’s ex husband because hey, why not? What perfume company executive doesn’t like to moonlight as a chum jockey?
But Pirio’s all-around excellence doesn’t stop there. Elo also gives her superpowers, such as the ability to identify minute traces of obscure scents, and an imperviousness to hypothermia; naturally, she encounters situations in which the only clue is a faint aroma of cologne and in which she must swim across a freezing, arctic bay.
“North of Boston” might not have been so frustrating if Pirio didn’t enter every life-threatening situation seeming to know that she wasn’t in any real danger. More than once, she finds herself in circumstances that would terrify or frighten a normal human, and she never seems to process how serious they are. As a reader, this confused me, until I realized that the situations actually weren’t very serious. Because Pirio’s specialness pretty much ensured that she’d have no trouble getting out of it, and made it impossible to generate any real tension.