Until the halfway point, this was a 4.5 star book. I’d just seen the movie of the same name recently so I was interested in reading the book to compare the two. I was also hoping the book would provide more insight into some of the characters’ decisions.
I was impressed by how faithfully the movie recreated scenes from the book; this might just be one of the best book-to-film adaptations I’d ever seen, which is even more impressive when you consider the context in which it was created; the mid-to-late 90s were rife with a lot of failed adaptations.
It’s rather fun to try and guess which characters are based on real people (and there’s a handy list for you to check your work). And the characters here are strong and interesting . . . at least at first. But where things go wrong is, perhaps not coincidentally, where the book and the movie versions diverge. The movie paces the book almost perfectly until the middle point, then skips over a lot of plot to leapfrog right to the big finale. Frankly, this was a good idea.
The book started to lose me around the time the main character had an affair with Susan (based on Hillary Clinton) and other . . . I guess you’d call it plot wandering? The plot and characters that was so taut and relentlessly paced seems to derail as Henry’s angst overwhelms any further direction. Unfortunately, it’s not something that resolves quickly enough and so the closing act drags until the big finish.
There’s also this weird thing about how faithfully the characters resemble the people they are based on and how some of the events very closely resemble things that really happened (such as the Cashmere McCloud/Gennifer Flowers scandal) but other ones are wildly fanciful (I don’t recall anyone in the primary dropping out due to a heart attack, then having his replacement drop out due to a drug scandal).
On the one hand, you recognize that a novel can be fantasy and that the real story of the 1992 presidential campaign didn’t have quite as many fun twists and turns. On the other hand, when you mix reality with fantasy so thoroughly, it creates a distance between the text and the reader, because now I’m not sure what to do with any of this material. I can’t dismiss everything, because some stuff is based on truth. But I can’t believe everything, because some of it is so obviously made up. It started out fun, at first, but eventually it just felt like homework.
So we’re left with a decidedly odd review at the end. On the strength of the characters, their dialogue, their interaction, and their sheer presence on the page, we come to 4.5 stars, maybe even 5 stars. Which is a really good thing, because this novel is almost entirely in dialogue.
On the other hand, the weirdness of some of the plot aspects and the sagging third act meant that after a roaring start, I found myself procrastinating on finishing the book, which means even with such wonderful characterization, the love/hate split I felt leaves me with a respectable, though not amazing, rating of three stars.