Is this plagiarism or something else?
This book is a HUGE best seller and I can see why. I was about forty pages into the book, and it was already past my bedtime, when I began to wonder if I should pull an all-nighter, and read the whole thing. Clearly, the book grabbed me.
This is the story of an author, Jacob Finch Bonner. He has two books in print. His first got reviewed in the “New & Noteworthy” section of The New York Times Book Review. His second was not good enough for his original publisher, but it was published by a respectable university press. His third and fourth books “had been rejected by a spectacular array of publishers of declining prestige.”
Translation: He has found himself in “the special purgatory for formerly promising writers.”
As we meet him, he is teaching at a low-residency MFA program in Vermont. Suffice it to say, the program is not prestigious. Be that as it may, one student in the program thinks his work-in-progress is hot stuff that cannot fail at being a huge success. Evan Parker is sure his book will be one of Oprah’s book picks, that an A-list director will turn it into a major motion picture, etc. The whole nine yards of publishing success is soon to be his because his plot is a sure-thing!
As readers, we get to see the several pages Parker had turned in for Bonner’s review. While they are well-written, there is nothing stellar about them. But then in a private meeting between student and teacher, the student reveals where he is going with the plot. The reader is not privy to this information and indeed, it is one of two mysteries that ultimately need to be solved in this book. So, hold onto that first mystery: What is the amazing plot?
A few years pass and Bonner slides further into publishing purgatory. Yes, he’s still teaching in Vermont, but it is now a no-residency-at-all program, all online. To make ends meet, he is also managing a writers’ colony open to anyone who can pay their way to get in. It is at this point that he does a computer search for Evan Parker to see what happened to him and his sure-thing novel. He learns that shortly after their time together, Parker died and it looks like the book died with him.
Of course, Bonner writes the story. No, no, he did not use any of the information in those few pages he actually read of the manuscript, but he did use the plot. His rational is this: Miss Saigon borrowed from Madam Butterfly; The Hours borrowed from Mrs. Dalloway; The Lion King borrowed from Hamlet. Thus, his story could be borrowed from Parker.
This topic will be the crux of what book clubs will talk about, What Bonner did was not plagiarism, but what is it? And is it ok?
As it turns out, Parker was right. The book becomes a HUGE success. And when it does, Bonner starts to get upsetting emails. The first one terrifies him in four words: “You are a thief.”
But Parker is dead, so who is writing him? That’s the second mystery of the book.
Ultimately, Bonner starts investigating the life and death of Evan Parker. The book juxtaposes these chapters with chapters from Bonner’s best-selling novel. Between the two sets of chapters, we solve both mysteries in a cataclysmic way that I won’t spoil for you here.
I give lots of stars to this can’t-put-it-down book. I loved it.
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One last thing! Here is my review for another book by Jean Hanff Korelitz.