A reviewer at the Washington Post said of this book: “Every sentence is as solid as brick.” I for one completely agree. The problem is that the book also felt as heavy as a brick. It took me 4 weeks to get through, which is probably a record. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some intricate, intellectually-challenging story with lots of characters. All I ask is that it keeps me interested. But for all its cleverness, one thing An Instance is not, is a page-turner.

After reading the mostly raving reviews, I can only conclude this is a typical case of a series of unfortunate expectations on my side.

The idea behind the book is great: a murder in 17th-century Oxford against a backdrop of political conspiracy and academic intrigue. Four unreliable narrators, each believing they have the key to the mystery. The first three go up to a certain point in solving it, but then let their obsessions take over and begin bending the story to their own will. So far, so good, right? I was expecting (mistake 1) a clever POV plot, with the same event being perceived by the characters in different ways. However, Pears doesn’t put us inside his characters’ heads, so all we do is read what they wrote for posterity, which means they very often lie… or are raving mad and start making things up. This took half my fun away.

When I came to the second character and found him was as flat-toned as the first I started to wonder if the book was really worth the investment. I though the first POV was dreary because that’s how Pears wanted to portray this particular person (mistake 2), but I found the exact same voice in the others. Still I labored on because most people told me the fourth character was the best, the one who sheds the light on everything. So I began expecting (mistake 3) a sort of The Usual Suspects: an ok story made brilliant by the mind-blowing ending. The problem is that by the time I came to the fourth character, I was in the mood to do little more than skim.

This book made me wonder once again how much I need likable characters to really enjoy a story, but it’s not likable I need, it’s interesting. I know the likelihood I will adore a book increases if I like or can identify with a character, but that’s not essential. It’s not even essential that they are friendly or “good” (I thoroughly enjoyed Lolita and there’s no one there I would invite over for dinner). The four characters in An Instance are complex, 3-dimensional and Pears presented no evil action without giving a justification, but I just didn’t care. (This sometimes happens to me with books that everyone else raves about: Magician, The Oxford Murders, The Skystone, to name recently-read ones)

In the end, the story’s culmination was a terrible letdown and the ultimate fate of Sarah Blundy (wrongly accused of the murder) was so implausible it just had to laugh a bit***. Even the true identity of the mysterious character 1 and his real reason for coming to England were a stretch in credulity and that’s putting it mildly.

(deep sigh)

So that’s that. But because I don’t want to be too harsh (do you know how many good books I could have read in 4 weeks?!) I will say this for An Instance: technically, it is well written. The research is meticulous (although you have the feeling at times that Pears wanted to use all his note cards by force if necessary) and I couldn’t find any holes in the plot. Unfortunately, these three factors put together just didn’t do it for me.

However, I will not give up on Iain Pears, he’s too much of a favorite of fellow-readers who’s opinion I highly respect. Also, I’m completely intrigued by the premise of his art history mysteries, it seems right up my alley.

*** SPOILER ALERT!

Did I understand that correctly, Sarah was that generation’s Jesus??! Also,  didn’t you figure out she wasn’t dead when we first see the description of her supposed autopsy, where she was cut “beyond recognition”?

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