What's arguably more interesting than this book is the furor surrounding its author the past few weeks. If you think of the book world as tame and polite, you might be surprised at how the claws came out over Ripper.
Here's what happened: Ripper is a departure for Allende, who has built her considerable reputation with volumes of historical fiction and magical realism. She is married to a crime novelist, William C. Gordon, and at the suggestion of her agent, decided to try her hand at the mystery/thriller genre. Then, she went on NPR and made a bunch of questionable-at-best comments about her opinion of the genre, and capped everything off by claiming Ripper was a tongue-in-cheek “joke” of a book.
Perhaps understandably, some listeners took issue with the interview. Fans of genre fiction have long been sensitive to literary authors' scorn. They don't take kindly to the snobbishness that says their favorite books aren't worth reading, and I imagine it's especially tough to swallow that attitude coming from someone who has co-opted the genre for her own purposes. Some suggested that if Allende finds the genre beneath her, it's just as well she leave it alone, as Ripper doesn't succeed as a thriller anyway.
And, well, they're right about that. Ripper may be a fairly interesting read, with a couple compelling characters and well-established setting, but it doesn't capture the momentum and suspense of a good thriller. The sixteen-year-old girl sleuth who is supposedly the central investigator is thinly developed, conspicuously absent from the most exciting scenes, and actually has a relatively minor role in the climax. The murderer, without giving too much away, is exactly the person we think it will be, and the “twist” regarding his or her identity provokes eye-rolls instead of gasps. This is definitely not a “leave the light on” kind of book. In fact, you could probably read it in the dead of night, and your only worry would be falling asleep in your chair.
So I suggest you read this book with a different mindset. Don't expect your spine to be tingled. Instead, appreciate what Allende has always done well: selection of detail. She evokes San Francisco so lyrically, I felt like if I went there, I'd recognize it. She creates several unusual, magnetic characters, and describes even minor characters in lush, expansive prose. She thoroughly explores those characters' thoughts, histories, and motivations, even when they're not immediately relevant to the central plot. Unfortunately, these elements at which she excels are the same ones that get in the way of a good thriller. No one wants to read two pages describing an artist's rooftop apartment when a juicy plot point is about to revealed. So if you want to enjoy this book, you should simply forget that it's supposed to be a thriller and read it like you would Allende's other work.
Allende eventually apologized for her comments, saying she was trying to be self-deprecating, but her loudest critics weren't appeased. Maybe eventually literary and genre fiction will find a way to peaceably coexist, but currently, very few authors have managed to bridge the divide and find success in both worlds. Perhaps Allende should take a page out of JK Rowling's playbook—Rowling seems to have approached the detective novel with the correct humility and grace. Her first attempt at the genre, The Cuckoo's Calling, is both skilfully written and masterfully paced, a literary and commercial success. Perhaps some authors can more easily adapt their skills than others.
In any case, I'll be surprised if Ripper turns out to be anything more than a solitary experiment for Allende. Though if she does decide to branch out again in the future, maybe her publisher will keep her off the radio.