Let me start this review of Dan Brown’s latest novel by saying I read Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code and thoroughly enjoyed the stories and the storytelling. Second, although The Lost Symbol was at times painful to read, I do not join other critics who point out the preachy, moralistic ending. Sometimes we need a reminder to return to the basics of our morality. Finally, I plan to reveal minor details of the book here but I won’t disclose any plot twists or surprises.
The Lost Symbol reads as if Dan Brown had been kidnapped and tortured by the Masons, just like one of the characters in the book is kidnapped and tortured by an evildoer, and forced to write this book under duress. Each chapter, while revealing frat-boy antics committed by the Masons during its rituals, also includes what seem to be apologies to the reader for those antics. Brown constantly reminds the reader that Masons have included the geniuses of history, the rich, the politically powerful — including, he says, most of the high-ranking members of all three branches of the U.S. government. Whenever a character in the book criticizes a Masonic activity, the hero of the book reminds us how warm and cuddly the Masons really are to the point that the subtitle of the book could have been, “Hug a Mason Today.”
The constant apologies for the Masons is not why I thought this book was a Brown dud. I actually learned what I hope are facts about Masonic history from this book, which I thought were enlightening and interesting. No, the worst part of this book is the amateurish writing and the forced, silly narrative. Brown wanted to ladle so much history and symbology onto the pages that the hero of the story, Robert Langdon, has to constantly stop and lecture one or more of the other characters in this book on the history of Freemasonry and all the wonderful contributions the world has received unto it by a Mason. We’re 30 seconds from the clutches of the bad guys, from whom we are running so we can save someone’s life, but wait, let’s stop a moment so I can explain in historic detail a particular symbol, or show you this nifty, magical number sequence and spell out in detail why it pertains to our rescue mission. Those stop-and-explain moments clue the reader in early that the tension the author is trying so hard to build must not be really all that tense if the main characters have so much time to marvel over history while being hotly pursued.
To add to the amateurish narrative, the characters, all portrayed as very smart and world-wise, are shocked, shocked! at every predictable turn of events. The characters actually exclaim, quite regularly, “Oh my God!” when something occurs that the readers will have predicted 5 pages ago, pandering to our egos so we can constantly pat ourselves on the back on how smart we are. Langdon, who is surprised the most, has evolved from a savvy, likeable university professor in The Da Vinci Code to a naive, gullible idiot savant. What? You mean this secret package as heavy as a bowling ball, the one my good friend and mentor (and, gasp, a 33rd degree Mason) told me years ago to keep safe and guard with my life because evil people across the entire globe would kill for it, and for which I got a mysterious phone call this morning telling me to bring this vital package to Washington, D.C., this heavy package I have been carrying over my shoulder, which I completely forgot I was carrying even though my shoulder is aching from the weight, might have something to do with why my friend and mentor has been kidnapped? Oh my God! How could this be? I’m shocked! Shocked! And sadly, I’m not exaggerating.
Another example of the irritating writing packed inside The Lost Symbol is that nearly every chapter begins with a retelling of what has occurred up to this point — just in case the previous section had lulled you into a deep case of neurasthenia and you lost all memory of the previous dozen pages. Why Dan Brown felt he had to constantly summarize previous events is a mystery. If you ignore my suggestion to pass on this book, you will remark to yourself each chapter how you haven’t seen such great recapping of events since watching the first three minutes of Batman reruns from the 1960s where they summarize the previous week’s cliffhanger.
As the final reader irritation (especially to us in Washington, D.C.), Brown gets some of his D.C. geography, details and landmarks wrong. Here are some of the more obvious factual indiscretions:
- His limo driver takes him from Dulles Airport to the Capitol via an unlikely route: the Dulles toll road to the beltway to the George Washington Parkway, then finally over the Memorial Bridge. Unless I-66 was closed, the limo driver would not have taken the beltway.
- The book says the trip from the airport took a half hour. Not by taking the GW Parkway to the Memorial Bridge it doesn’t.
- When Langdon’s limo crosses the Potomac, Langdon looks to left of the Lincoln Memorial to see the Jefferson Memorial. Didn’t Brown check a map? Or did his researcher mistake the Kennedy Center for the Jefferson? The Jefferson is way over to the right.
- Langdon enters the Capitol Visitor Center on a Sunday and sees tour groups inside the Rotunda. The visitor center is closed on Sundays. There are no public tours.
- Langdon crosses the street from Freedom Plaza and enters the Metro system to get away from the bad guys. The closest Metro station to Freedom Plaza is a couple of blocks away, not across the street.
- When the bad guys try to arrest Langdon as the Metro train pulls into the station, the train conductor is driving from the third car. Metrorail conductors always drive from the first car.
- The metro conductor exits the car without opening the doors. I guess he could have squeezed out the side window, but I think Brown would have included that contortionist trick in the narrative.
Those are a few of the errors a D.C. resident, regular visitor or observant tourist would notice. Since I mentioned a few of the book’s D.C.-centric errors, to his credit, Brown does have Langdon notice the hum of the limo’s wheels change as he approaches the Memorial Bridge, a sign that Brown knows the road is cobblestone between the Parkway exit and the roundabout approaching the bridge.
Since Brown’s previous two books were so much better, I have to ask, What happened? That’s why I had to conclude from reading The Lost Symbol that Brown must have been kidnapped by some group intent on rehabilitating the public’s view of the Masons after Brown’s previous books made these types of secret societies look evil. The real lost symbol of the book is hidden in plain sight. The words on the page, those everyday alphabetic symbols, are Dan Brown’s way of crying out to the reader: “Can’t you tell from this stilted writing and my obvious mistakes of D.C. geography that any tourist would pick up on that I’ve been kidnapped and forced to write this? Help me!”
If indeed Dan Brown has been seen in public since the book’s publication in September, and he isn’t a prisoner of the Masons, the only other reasons I can see for this book being so bad after two previous entertaining novels are:
- The Lost Symbol was a contractual obligation book. Maybe the book was motivated by Doubleday reminding Brown of the $5 million advance and the promise of another $10 million upon delivery of the manuscript.
- This book reflects Dan Brown’s actual writing ability, and he got in a major tiff with his editor. The Lost Symbol is the editor’s revenge.
Overall, if you still feel compelled to read this book, do like I did and buy the ebook version. At least no tree would have been required to share your suffering. My plea to the Masons: Free Dan Brown before he writes another book.