Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


I go to a zumba class on Monday nights. Actually, hip-hop would be a more apt description. Going to this class and being forced to watch myself shimmy in the mirror has confirmed the fact that I am very white. And a very bad dancer.

Last Monday I arrived at the community center early for no particular reason and had a free twenty minutes before class started. I decided to walk down the hall and wander around the library, just to see if anything caught my eye since I was between books at the time. Five minutes later I walked out with a worn copy of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. You know the book I'm talking about: the one with the bold yellow cover and long title. 

Before reading the back cover, I didn't know much of anything about the plot except that it was good. That, and the library book I checked out had a blue sticker on the spine that said "mystery." The only other thing I'd heard about the story was that there was a lot of sex (this from both moviegoers and book readers). Being a conservative reader, this is most of reason why it took me so long to decide to read it at all. 

It took me 4 days to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the experience can easily be compared to reading Stephen King's 11/22/63: I read the prologue and was hooked. The only difference is that in this case, I had to wade through the first 40 pages after the prologue, which is a boring, too-detailed financial narrative about a minor character who doesn't even appear in the book again until the last 100 pages. All I can say is that I'm glad I was forewarned about this slow beginning, because I might have stopped right then and there. (As a matter of fact, I know one coworker who told me she's tried twice to read it and hasn't been able to make it past the second chapter.) 

If you can push through, however, it's almost impossible to put down. And impossible to stop thinking about even when you're not reading it. 

The plot follows Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant but socially deviant hacker, and Mikael Blomkvist,  an investigative journalist, on a search to solve a forty-year-old murder. They wind up uncovering much more than they expected--which is, I suppose, as all good mystery thrillers go. Still, the plot for me was unexpected and entirely engaging, and there were twists and turns until the end that kept me guessing. The characters themselves were unique and believable as well.

On the whole, I greatly enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and am glad I finally read it. What's strange about this book is how so many people read it and like it, yet there's so little actually said about it. A friend of mine wrote a review, and I'm going to copy a few lines from her post, because I don't think I could say it better: 

"My conjecture is that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is intriguing for Americans first and foremost because it’s so entirely different from what we’re used to. This novel is very European, by which I mean that it is rather mature for U.S. standards and more liberal than we’re usually willing to be comfortable with." 

In 2011 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was made into an American movie (the original Swedish version came out in 2009) starring Daniel Craig and previously unknown Rooney Mara (who earned an Oscar nomination for leading actress). I haven't seen it, and after reading the book, I don't plan to. 

Thinking about my conservative taste and what I am personally "willing to be comfortable with" has much to do with why, if I claim to like the book so much, I still say I do not want to see the movie. 

The shortest answer is to say that for me, reading a scene is different from watching it happen in front of me, and there are scenes in this book that I would not want to see on a screen. There is sex in this book--both positive and negative occurrences--and those negative ones are centered around sadistic abuse of women. Larrson didn't go into as much detail as I know he could have, which I appreciated. For the most part I was left to picture as much or little as I wanted; with a movie, this would not be the case. That's the main reason I am most likely not going to watch the movie. Call me a prude if you want. 

But as far as suspense and storytelling goes, Stieg Larsson is (or, was--he died in 2004 just after submitting his manuscripts) a master. 

That aside, there are some editorial concerns. Namely, his tense shifting, transitions, and short sections of text, which at times made me feel like I was jumping around too much with no place to land. It also frustrated me that it wasn't until just over halfway through the book that Lisbeth and Mikael actually met and started working together. 

Even though this is part of a trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes to a clear conclusion and can easily stand alone. But although the main plot questions are answered, I have to say that when I closed this book, I didn't feel a sense of closure. The best way to put it is this: the ending was neither what I expected nor what I wanted. I want to be honest about this, even though I'm not entirely sure how to explain myself.

At first, I was upset because at the end of it all there wasn't a single character above reproach. The case was solved, but there wasn't really a winner. However, after thinking about it (and through the course of writing this review), I've decided that there really was no other choice. The dark subject matter lends itself to a conclusion that is satisfactory yet, on some level (for me, at least), disappointing--another reason the movie version doesn't appeal to me and why--at the conclusion of a mostly positive review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--I'm going to contradict (and surprise) myself and say that for the moment, I don't plan on rushing back to the library before zumba class next week to pick up book two. 

*I linked back to two reviews in this post. 

The first was written by Nathan Brandford, an author and former literary agent, on whether or not he would have accepted Larsson's manuscript in its current form. You can find it HERE.

The second was written by a good friend of mine and goes into more of the sexual subject matter and cultural biases of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than I have done. You can find it HERE.

Emily said...

Thanks for this review. I have never been intrigued to read this book - but for some reason my husband has been pushing me to read it. I think it's because my mother-in-law was reading it the last time I was there. After this review and the useful tips - I might reconsider.

Allison said...

I love Zumba...but I feel the same was looking in the mirror at the studio. Haha. Oh well. I'm glad you posted about this book. My book club read it, but I decided not to read it. I heard the movie was really graphic so you are probably smart not to see it if you have doubts. I'm still intrigued by the story though.

Patrice said...

I loved the movie but haven't read the book. I love Zumba, too...add being 54 years old to your list of shortcomings, and you'll know how I feel...LOL!

Anonymous said...

If you didn't like that Lisbeth and Mikael don't work together 'til halfway through the book, then you won't enjoy the other two books either.

I'm glad that enough warnings about all the sex made it easier for you to digest it. You say it wasn't as bad as you thought, but had you not been warned at all, I think you would've come away with a different, more negative impression.

Overall, glad you enjoyed the read!