Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Red Lotus

Title:  The Red Lotus
Author:  Chris Bohjalian
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2020. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0385544804 / 978-0385544801

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The opposite of a hospice?"

Favorite Quote:  "But he felt a deep, numinous stitch within him as he recalled the deaths he had seen and the one he'd never get over, and the sad truth that no matter how many or how few people are with you at the end, you really do die alone."

Alexis works in an Emergency Department in New York City. That is, in fact, where she meets Austin. He comes in with a bullet wound, which is deemed a random act of a drunk individual in a bar. But was it? The story reveals that Austin may not be who or what he seems to be on the surface. At the beginning, though, he seems to be Alexis's dream and their meeting seems meant to be.

Months later, the two go on a tour of Vietnam around the Hoi An area. It is a bike tour for Austin who is an avid bicyclist. It is a bike tour in Vietnam so he can pay homage to the places his father and uncle fought in the war. During the course of the tour, Austin disappears.

Then, the mystery begins. Who was Austin? What really brought him to Vietnam? The story itself returns to New York with Alexis. Unwittingly, Alexis steps into the middle of a global thriller involving scientific research, its uses to save lives, and its potential uses for far more dangerous and lethal purposes.

Interestingly, the book title makes its way into the book in two diametrically opposite ways. One is a nod to Vietnamese belief about the red lotus:

"'My grandmother won't eat them.'
'Lotus flowers.'
'She thinks they're sacred. Especially the red lotus ... The heart. They heart a broken heart - but not medicinally. Spiritually.'"

The other is a nickname given to a lab conducting research into disease transmission and the ability to use certain rats as carriers. "They'd christened that one the red lotus, because their transgenic label rats had genes from their Vietnamese counterparts."

The book has a limited number of characters. The "who" of the good guys and the bad guys in the story is made clear early on. The "what" of the enterprise is not a surprise. The "why" of course is money. Even the "how" is easily guessed as the only clue found at the site of Austin's disappearance is a energy gel pack found in the road. The book hold true to its reference to "Occam's razor:  the most likely explanation is probably the correct explanation."

This book came out before the intensity of COVID pandemic became a reality. Reading it at this point through the lens of an actual global pandemic seems prescient. The mystery of this book is not really a mystery. It is more about following Alexis on her journey as she discovers who Austin was and what happened to him. Unfortunately, she is not always a character that I invest in or begin to care about. My favorite character of the book is the private detective for his story has the emotion that seems to be lacking in Alexis's story.

The information about how a contagion might be developed and spread is frighteningly fascinating. The details about rats, I could do without! At the same time, a book about a possible fictional pandemic becomes an escape from the real one.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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