Review: Ripper by Isabel Allende

Posted February 24, 2014 by Heather in Book Reviews / 28 Comments

I received this book for free from the publisher / TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Ripper by Isabel AllendeRipper by Isabel Allende
Published by Harper on January 28, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Format: Paperback
Pages: 478
Source: the publisher / TLC Book Tours

Goodreads | Amazon

When I was offered Ripper by TLC Book Tours, I was really looking forward to reading it. Isabel Allende is well-known in the world of literary fiction and I’d heard lots of good things about her books. She had never written a mystery novel before, but Ripper sounded really cool: it takes place in San Francisco; Amanda is seventeen years old; her mother is an holistic healer; her grandfather is her best friend; her father is the deputy chief of homicide for the San Francisco Police Department; her godmother is a famous astrologer in California; and Amanda sets out to solve a string of murders that are taking place in the Bay Area. Amanda seems to be fascinated by violent crime–she, her grandfather, and a small group of teenagers from around the globe get together online to play a role-playing game called “Ripper,” based on Jack the Ripper’s time in England. When the murders start (supposedly foreseen by her astrologer godmother), Amanda takes the role-playing game from 1888 into 2012 (with the consent of the other players) so they can work on solving the modern-day killings.

Sounds pretty cool, right? Teenage RPGer-turned-crime-solver, interesting-sounding characters, murder mystery…I thought this would be a really good book coming from an author like Isabel Allende.

Well.

Before I get into why I was disappointed with Ripper, let me be clear on something: her interview on NPR has nothing to do with how I feel about the book. I know a lot of folks are upset about some of the things she said about readers and the crime/mystery genre in general, but I couldn’t care less what any author thinks of me or the books I read. I’m not angry or bitter (although the readers who are have every right to be, really)–this review has not been tainted by Allende’s careless words.

So. During the course of the interview on NPR, Allende talks about why she chose to write a mystery/crime novel and she says this (source: NPR interview linked above):

The book is tongue in cheek. It’s very ironic … and I’m not a fan of mysteries, so to prepare for this experience of writing a mystery I started reading the most successful ones in the market in 2012. … And I realized I cannot write that kind of book. It’s too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there’s no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people. Very entertaining, but really bad people. So I thought, I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke. My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young, 16-year-old nerd. My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer, and so forth.

Allende claims the book is a joke because she found she couldn’t write that kind of book. And by “couldn’t write,” I take it to mean that she just couldn’t bring herself to write that kind of book because she dislikes them so much. Hey, great. I’m glad she’s not going in for the stereotypical characters found in lots of mysteries. That’s cool. I like the thought of a teenage protagonist in a book for adults. I like the sound of the other…free-spirited…characters.

What I think actually happened was that Allende knew she’d written a book that isn’t all that good, and she decided to play it off as a joke so she had an excuse. “Oh, this funny thing? Yeah, I didn’t take it seriously at all when I was writing it. It was just a joke. That’s why it’s not up to my usual standards.”

Mmmhm. [side eye]

Here’s the thing: Ripper could have been a really good book. The premise makes it sound like something I would enjoy. But it fell flat, big time.

For the first almost 200 pages, the book is all over the place. It takes that long for things to start connecting and coming together and for the real action to finally start.

The characters don’t get developed all that much. Didn’t care about any of them. Not even Amanda, who I think would be an amazing young woman in real life.

Lots of the story is wholly unbelievable. For example, Amanda’s father is the deputy chief of the homicide division of the SFPD (as I mentioned already), and he has no problem letting his teenage daughter and his father-in-law look through all the case files, police reports, and autopsy reports dealing with the recent murders (which they then share with the other players of “Ripper”). And he keeps them up to date with everything going on concerning those murders. In fact, he enlists their help because he can’t seem to solve the murders on his own. Oh. Now, I understand that young folks tend to have better imaginations than adults and so may be better equipped to solve mysteries, but there must be a reason why Amanda’s dad is the DEPUTY CHIEF OF HOMICIDE. How did he get there if he doesn’t have the imagination he needs to do his job well? Huh. And do officers of the law often share that kind of information–in detail–with civilians? I find that so hard to believe.

There are more than a few contradictions in the book. Example: Amanda’s dad thinks to himself that crime is her true calling–he knows she’d make an excellent lawyer, detective, etc. He’s known this about her since she was born. Two pages later, he’s hoping that her fascination with crime will pass and that she’ll become interested in something else…but he keeps sharing the case information with her and doesn’t ask her to stop researching. Okay, I understand that as a parent, you can admit that your kid’s true calling is crime and also want them to find something safer to do. But that’s not exactly how it reads in the book taken in context–it just sounds like Allende is contradicting herself.

Repetition, repetition, repetition. At least 150 pages could have been cut from this book without hurting the story. So many ideas are repeated over and over (some of them nearly verbatim) that I wondered if Allende was being paid by the word.

Short version: Ripper just isn’t a good book. But it could have been, and that’s what disappoints me the most. It’s really more like (poor) literary fiction with some mystery/crime elements tossed in, and if Allende had set out to do that in the first place and really developed the literary fiction aspect of it, I think it would have been great. But she was just joking around, so I shouldn’t take any of my complaints too seriously…right?

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  • I didn’t know she was ruffling feathers! To be fair the last thing I read by her was in high school and it was in Spanish, so clearly it’s been a long time. I’m with you that I like the idea of this one, but it probably could have been done better.

    • Heather

      Yep, the idea was great. The execution was not so much.

  • Wow, that’s interesting. I’m curious what made her decide she wanted to write a mystery in the first place. I mean, that interview explains why she wrote it the way she did, but not actually why she went down that road.

    Also… taking what’s expected out of the genre and turning it around… actually sounds like a great idea. It doesn’t have to be a joke. If there are things about the genre you don’t like, why NOT change them? Why not write a good book to say, “hey, it could work this way too”?

    Who knows whether her comments were an after-the-fact excuse or not, but even if they weren’t, I think she went about proving her point in the wrong way.

    • Heather

      There’s a note from her at the beginning of the book that says she told her publisher she was retiring, and her publisher suggested she and her husband (a mystery/crime righter, no less) should write a book together. Allende says that didn’t work out (she thought they would harm each other in the process, heh), so she decided to give it a go by herself.

      And yes, flipping the expectations DOES sound like a great idea. That’s one of the things I was excited about. And the characters were really cool, just not that deep, really.

      After posting this, I read that she has since apologized for her comments, saying that she was kidding and that her comments were meant to be self-deprecating, but that her sense of humor doesn’t always come across right. That could very well be considering her first language isn’t English and her translation into English of her intentions lost something in the interview. I don’t “know her” well enough to know if that’s true. Lots of people are saying that her apology was just self-serving. Again, though, her comments didn’t really bother me personally in the first place–I can’t be bothered by what people think of me concerning the books I read, ya know?

      But yeah, she didn’t go about it well.

  • *Sigh*

    I count Allende’s The House of the Spirits as one of my all-time favorite books. I need to re-read it, but it affected me so much when I first read it. I’ve read a couple of her other books, and they just…were nowhere near that first.

    When this one came in the mail for me, I wasn’t sure what to do with it, it was so outside the realm of what I though she’d do. Then hearing about this interview and how awful the book is, and just…not. I’m not sure what’s going on here with here, but it’s odd. And I won’t be reading this one, though I love most anything that has to do with Jack the Ripper.

    • Heather

      If it makes you feel better, there is no mention of Jack the Ripper anywhere in the book except to explain where the name of the RPG (and the book) comes from.

      I had never read anything else by her, so this was my first experience with her, and I’m sad that this is the way it turned out. I’m not going to go out of my way to avoid her books, but I’m not about to run out and read any of them any time soon, either. *Sigh* is right.

  • I read about what Isabel Allende said about the book and thought she really handled the PR terribly from start to finish. I agree the apology and claiming it was all a joke may have been her way of trying to save her butt. She’s a great writer, but I don’t think readers will ever forget this controversy.

    • Heather

      I don’t think they will, either, especially those readers for whom this was a first time experience with her. That’s unfortunate.

  • I was only vaguely aware of this drama surrounding Allende because I’m going to be reading The House of Spirits soon. I think a lot of what she’s arguing about her book and the mystery genre really do just sound like a convenient excuse to hide behind after writing a shitty book. I’ll take this one off the must-read list and concentrate one people who write books because they love what they’re writing and aren’t hate-writing a genre they don’t enjoy.

    • Heather

      [nods]

  • sj

    Oh, um…no thank you.

    • Heather

      Yeah, not a book I would recommend to anyone.

  • Thanks, I think I’ll avoid this one. I thought you did a great job writing the review about the book while the big controversy was out there at the same time. Very interesting.

  • What a disappointment. I love Allende’s books. Not sure why she would choose to write a book in a genre she doesn’t really seem to respect.

  • Pingback: Isabel Allende, author of Ripper, on tour January/February 2014 | TLC Book Tours()

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book for the tour.

  • A great review that has made me decide that this book isn’t for me either. I hadn’t realised that she had written it for a ‘joke’ either!

    • Heather

      I kind of feel bad for turning so many people away from a book by an author like Allende, BUT…

      …too many books, too little time. No sense in reading something so mediocre.

  • Wow! I’ve heard the book wasn’t good but I has no idea about the NPR piece. I’ve oh read House of the Spirits but have several of her others on my shelf. Think I’ll skip this one completely.

  • I’ve never read Allende though I have come across her name and other books on the blogospehre. But my simple question is does one or does an author write a book and say it was a joke? After all the time and effort expended? How then can we take such an author serious?

  • I’ve been having mixed feelings about this one since I first read about it. On a surface level, it sounds amazing but whenever I read something deeper about it, it just felt off. And you confirm that. Unfulfilled potential is the worst!
    I read House of Spirits years ago and absolutely loved it but haven’t been seriously interested in reading any of her other books. Not quite sure why.
    I’ll be passing on this one too but I think you should give House of Spirits a go, Heather.

    • Heather

      I will, for sure. You aren’t the first one to say that you loved that book.

  • Rowena

    I was actually surprised when I heard that Allende was writing a mystery novel as I’ve always associated her with magical realism. Not that I’m saying that writers shouldn’t write outside of their genres but reading your review and the comments Allende made in the interview made me question why she decided on this genre.

  • Well, that settles it. I had heard that it was bad, but now that I know you didn’t like it, I will not read it. Besides, I kind of think it’s crappy for someone to write something as a joke (even if she is covering the fact that she knows it’s bad) when so many people (including me) are struggling to write our own novels.

  • Sigh. I was really looking forward to this one because I’ve liked Allende’s stuff in the past, and I’m currently really into the mystery/thriller genre. I thought her take on it would be really interesting. Sounds like that’s not the case.

  • I have tried to read 2 of her books and just can’t get into them. I don’t think it is the stories but her style of writing (or perhaps it is the translating, hard to say). Sorry this was a bust for you.

  • Wow, that’s a bummer. I’m not into crime/mystery novels myself, but this one definitely sounds interesting in theory — the way you describe the protagonist, she reminds me of Abby from NCIS 🙂

    As for the excerpt from Allende’s interview, on first read it didn’t seem all that offensive, but on second thought, she could’ve stated more clearly that these are just her personal perceptions of the genre — just based on the few books she read — and she definitely could’ve explained more about what turned her off so much about the characters. Because, yeah, you’re not going to gain many points with your intended audience if you just flat-out say their favorite characters are bad people :-/

    • Heather

      Right? It could have been SO GOOD.

      I didn’t really find her comments about the genre offensive. I mean, like I said, I don’t care what others think about what I choose to read.

      BUT…the fact that she wrote a book that was a “joke” (but didn’t originally market it as such) and wasted readers’ time irritates me considerably. (Especially since she has lots of fans who really enjoy and respect her writing.)