A Renaissance mystery rattles the lives of four Princeton roommates—in an astonishingly good debut by a young team of writers who have put their expensive educations to much better use than classmates who keep screwing up governments.
The mystery is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a real Renaissance text that reads like six Handel operas after a bout in the food processor. Narrator Thomas Corelli Sullivan is one of four stout friends and roommates in their last year at Princeton. Before his accidental death, Sullivan’s father was himself obsessed by the headbusting puzzles built into the book by its anonymous author, and that obsession, nearly the ruin of his marriage, is now threatening Tom’s. Waifish Paul Harris, perhaps the most brilliant of the friends, building on the work of numerous scholars including Tom’s late father, has begun to crack the book’s codes, and his work has sucked Tom into a world he hoped to avoid. Neglecting his own studies and his immensely attractive girlfriend Katie, Tom lends his own formidable knowledge and intuition to Paul’s labors. Their findings seem to bear out the theories for which Tom’s father was ridiculed by Vincent Taft, a rival scholar now in residence down the road at the Institute for Advanced Studies, and the authorship seems clearly to have been that of Francesco Colonna, an aristocrat and member of the inner circle of great Florentine humanists. What remains elusive is the great mystery at the center of the text, which has to do with the location and purpose of an immense crypt Colonna had ordered up. Tom emerges from the intellectual hothouse just in time to save his degree and his love life, but Paul charges ahead until he, Tom, and the other two plucky roommates find themselves, without ever leaving Princeton, in extraordinary peril. Academic evil stalks the campus and no one is safe.
Scholarship as romance: intricate, erudite, and intensely pleasurable.