The Riddle of the Sphinx

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Jun 2019

Member Reviews

Great read. The author wrote a story that was interesting and moved at a pace that kept me engaged. The characters were easy to invest in.
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This book was not at all what I thought it would be and not my usual go to novel. I thought the premise of the book was very good. The description was interesting.  The book, however, really failed to capture my interest. I felt that the descriptive adjectives were over used, forced and felt as if they came from a thesaurus. There were multiple run-on sentences and although it could be polished with editing, I’m not sure it would make the paragraphs easier to read.  I am not endorsing a simplistic writing style but feel that in order to capture a broader span of readers, the book needed a more straight forward writing style.
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I learned a great deal from reading this book.  The author lays out the historical events that affect the present-day plot and characters, helping the reader make sense of the characters' motivations and actions.
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Author Alexander Montagu has created a very unusual story but it is difficult to write a review about. 

I often found it too detailed and it meandered too much - careful editing may overcome this aspect. While the main character Eric was interesting, he lacked depth and substance. The ending endeavoured to give Eric depth but to me the reflecting and philosophising added more confusion than clarity to the character and to the story.

Did I enjoy reading this story? Well I enjoyed parts of it but I must admit I struggled to read some parts finding the story over complicated. Long sections that seemed to go on too much detracted from the often interesting dialogue that was developed. While revelation came to Eric in the end, as a reader, it didn’t come to me as I was lost in a sea of mixed thoughts and philosophies, without being sure as to where the story had reached. 

Despite the long winded story telling, the author has a readable style which just needs a little reigning in.

Thanks to Netgalley and publisher Persepolis Publishing for an ebook copy to read and review
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Very interesting subject matter, told in an intricate manner that could have been confusing or disorienting, but ends up making perfect sense. The characters and their choices/problems feel real, and the locations are superb (in different time frames) - Iran, Paris, USA.
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Because I did not know that this book was ordered on the premises of alternate realities, I initially found the Riddle of the Sphinx a bit confusing. The characters were very finely developed, the background of mixed cultures of Iran felt authentic and were described in language that was richly prosaic. I was fascinated by the lives of the characters in Iran, Paris, and Princeton but was distracted trying to figure out the relationships between the characters in the segments. When it finally dawned on me that the construct of the book was around shifting or alternate realities, it was as if a light turned on and everything made sense. This novel has tremendous depth and a keen understanding of how societal mores dictate one’s life path, or in this case lives paths. Riddle of the Sphinx was beautifully written and certainly psychologically revelatory of times and cultures very different from my life experiences. It was the most intellectually challenging novel I’ve read in quite some time. I consider it worthy of the categorization of literary fiction rather than simple fiction.
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This should have been a much better book. There was so much promising material (a family fleeing revolution and adapting to expatriate life); there were intriguing literary devices (at least three alternate versions of the main character's life are spelled out); there was inherent conflict, both cultural and personal (Eric, the protagonist, seems at odds with his sexual orientation). There was, in short, so much potential. 

My disappointment wasn't a matter of content, but of execution. Too often the story's flow screeched to a halt, braked by LONG expository passages, most notably in the opening chapters, dealing with the 1979 Iranian revolution, and in the final chapters, where we had a summary of the philosophical points the author might have made subtly without exposition, or might have trusted his readers to "get it." I was reminded of the 60-page philosophical sermon delivered by John Galt in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Alexandre Montagu is clearly an erudite person. But great modern literature relies on imagery, not vocabulary, to lift it above common fiction. And it didn't seem as if Montagu was trying for genre fiction either: although there were suspenseful moments, this was no thriller. And then there were those all-too-common academic phrases: "male polygamy was virtually abrogated" and "concomitant collapse of laws that maintained male hegemony" turned up in the same paragraph.

Sorry to nitpick, but I spent several hours of my life on something that didn't deliver what it promised. (Thanks to NetGalley for an advance readers copy.)
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I chose to read The Riddle of the Sphinx because my family lived in Tehran during the timeframe of Keyvan/Eric’s childhood there and because I am currently—somewhat inadvertently—reading a bunch of “own voices” books and this book fit right in.

Montague uses the “sliding door” technique of showing alternate realities and divides the book, like the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, into childhood, teen years, and full adulthood. Keyvan/Eric lives a privileged life in Tehran and attends an international school His family no longer practices Islam, and he’s never been in a mosque. While in school he has several same-sex experiences which are outlawed by Islam. When the Shah is deposed and Khomeini takes over the reins of government, Keyvan’s life changes. After his family’s escape from Tehran and their move to Paris, he then goes on to college at Princeton. 

The Riddle of the Sphinx has pages and pages of historical information on Persian culture and the impact of Islam on it, including descriptions of the 2500 year rule of the Shah’s family. In addition, in the Princeton segments, there was a lot of description of Proust and his writings. Overall, these segments tended to tell rather than show and I frequently found myself skimming them.

On the other hand, the description of Keyvan/Eric with his various lovers was delightful to read, and Montagu gave very good description of Keyvan/Eric’s sexual awakening in the first two sections of the book. Later, when Eric has emerged fully as Eric and is a mature man with a wife and children and a top-notch career as lawyer, he is dissatisfied with where he ends in life. He grapples with his inner homoerotic desires and his current lifestyle. The final third of the book deals with how he handles this dissatisfaction with his life.

The book is quite character-driven as the reader sees Eric grow and mature as he struggles with his identity. The class of self versus culture and the reaction to life-altering adversity should have driven the novel forward. Unfortunately, there is a lot of pedantic narration that reads textbook-dry.
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What a fabulous tale of a boy escaping to manhood, while at the same time escaping from one world to another, in more ways than one.  Every page was full of beautiful picturesque prose that kept me enthralled to the very end.
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I was unable to continue reading this book to the end.  Therefore, I will not review it.  I could not get into it.  Perhaps this book is just not for me.  I hate to give a bad review but I could not stand the writing style.
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I didn’t really know anything about Iran, so I found the first part of the book quite interesting, as Keyvan and his mother tried and finally left the country.  Then the book kind of became more ordinary to me and didn’t hold my interest as much as that first part.
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I received an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to NetGalley, Persepolis Publishing, and the author Alexandre Montagu. 
This book had an interesting premise, and a lot of potential. Unfortunately I found the way that it was written incredibly tiresome. 
The author seemed more preoccupied with showing off his own knowledge and experience, rather than trying to tell the story. 
It seems as though every natural adjective had been replaced by ones the author had found in a thesaurus, using words like alembic, concomitant, abrogated, fulgurant, soporiferous and velleities, instead of simpler versions which would have worked just as well. These words added no clear additional benefit, and seemed like an exercise to sound more learned. This was also mirrored in the author’s use of similes and metaphors, using constant references to Kafka and Proust.  
There were also long extracts that felt like Wikipedia entries, telling background history that could have been summarised much more quickly and concisely. 
The issues above combined with story inconsistencies and continuity issues meant that the whole experience was pretty frustrating. A real shame!
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I found this book in NetGalley when I was browsing for a book that I could read and review. It’s the words in the title “Riddle” and “Sphinx” that drew me to the book. I’m a huge fan of Egyptian Mythology and assumed this book had something to do with ancient Egyptian tales. Although I was slightly disappointed to learn when I read the blurb that it had nothing to do with ancient Egypt or Mythology, I was hooked to the book from chapter 1 and the story that the author was beginning to say! 

The book is divided into three sections with the first section about the Main Character’s (MC) privileged childhood among the royals and elites of 1970s Iran. The second section talks about the character’s transition into a young man who goes to Princeton and how he finds his sexuality and how it impacts him and his relationships. And the final section talks of the MC’s successful career as a corporate lawyer in NYC and how he comes to a realization of his life’s realities. He finds Buddhism that ultimately helps him want to live his life in full. 

I was initially a little confused about the transition from the first section to the second where the MC goes from being Kevyan from Iran to Eric from France. It bothered me for a while until I read further into the section and understood the reasoning for the transition. I found Section I of the book very engaging as the author describes the lifestyle of the elites in the royal circle and how drastically their lives changed during the revolution. The parts they were trying to escape from Iran and the trials and tribulations that came with it was agony inducing. 

I truly enjoyed and was intrigued by the book up until the very end. I, personally, was not too happy with how the author chose to end the book. The author claims that it was Buddhism that helped the MC choose the path he took in the climax, however, Buddhism also teaches a person to be true to himself. That makes me wonder if the climax was maybe contradictory? Just my thought, others may differ. 

One aspect of the book that I must point out is the writing. The author has excellent writing skills and definitely had potential to do even better going forward! The usage of Iranian and French Prose/Poetry and Quotes was interesting as well. 

In closing, even though this is not a genre that I particularly enjoy, I found Alexandre Montagu’s book to be an interesting and engaging read. I would definitely recommend adding it to your reading collection, especially if you enjoy psychological dramas.
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Eric, who was Keyvan ( a child in Iran) and also Eric ( a student at Princeton), is a lawyer and investment banker. He has a good life with money, power, and family. Over the course of this novel the stories of his other lives are told and lead, kinda, to Eric experiencing a moment of enlightenment. 

The Riddle of the Sphinx has some really fantastic moments. Moments where the protagonist, in one or another of his incarnations, experiences am event or an emotion that really rings true. But it also suffers from moments where ideas are explained rather than shown.

The stories of Keyvan and college-age Eric are interesting and have some interesting emotional notes. Modern Eric is less interesting and his story lacks the detail that made the other two stories come to life.

I read this book pretty quickly, and I did like it, but I stopped short of loving it. 

Thanks to NetGalley for the chance to read it.
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I found the discussion of Iran and it’s history interesting, and it’s honesty why I picked up this book, but I couldnt quite relate to the characters, the book never really captured me. Maybe it was the writing style which was very direct but not necessarily enjoyable to read.
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Literary fiction, almost arrogantly autobiographical.

Keyvan/Eric begins life as an upper class boy in liberal Tehran before the Irani Islamist revolution, and the novel explores his life story and the choices he makes to become a family man and lawyer in present day New York reminiscing on his life.

It's beautifully written in parts, and an eye opening description of life in Iran in the 70s. A lot of his time as a literature student at Princeton is dull, the inner motivations of an anxious closeted homosexual, which is unfortunately about two thirds of the book. 
Eric has two moments in his life that act as "sliding doors" moments where he could be pushed into a different direction or path. It's is structured as a Buddhist meditation which seems... contrived.

I lost interest towards the end. The "alternate ending" piece wasn't necessary and it left me skimming.
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I almost didn't read this book beyond the first few pages.  There were too many people introduced, too many names and relationships and details of how they related to the Shah etc. I didn't feel I needed to know about all these people - the main protagonists would have been enough.

However, I looked at the reviews on here - which are mostly good - and decided to give it a bit longer. I'm glad I did as once we got to the escape the pace picked up and it all became much more interesting. I felt this really should have been the start as it was exciting and put the main characters in danger - the earlier bit was just scene-setting.  I did find the background details of the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollahs fascinating though as I was in Iran just a year or so before these events took place.

The further sections were also compelling, each in their  own ways, and it soon became clear what the author was trying to do, which was to build a quite sophisticated structure.  Though I occasionally found the dialogue a little stilted, I enjoyed the story and the characters. I felt I was gaining a good insight into the minds of the main characters/author.

However, the end was also too detailed to my mind - too much telling the reader about the Buddhist aspects when the reader ought (and I suspect most do) get it without it being hammered home.

So, I believe there is a very good book here but it is lurking inside this other wordier book and needs to be chipped out of the surrounding verbiage. Carve the work of art out like a statue from the block of stone and there will be a fascinating novel here.

I did enjoy it overall though.
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Riddle of the sphinx by Aleixandre Montagu
This is an amazing read. We begin with Eric who is a partner in a New York legal firm. How did he get there and who is he?
His story begins with the fall of the Shah of Iran and the incredible power vacuum that this caused. Eric’s mother is an Iranian princess and there is a choice, do they stay or run?
Every life has turning points and there are different paths we can take. We see two versions of the events and do not fully grasp the truth until Eric’s vision towards the end explains why he avoided being blown up in Iran and how he didn’t catch aids in 1990s New York. His sexual obsession with Mark could have been a disaster but instead it just fizzled out. Like a work by Proust who Eric greatly admires he is on an exploration of self discovery.
The author delves into myths, legends and the human desire for truth and enlightenment to weave this story into an epic tale.We just have to remember that In Greek legend, the Sphinx asks "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?" The hero Oedipus gave the answer, "Man," Aleixandre Montagu used this question as the framework for Eric’s story.
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The Riddle of the Sphinx follows Keyvan/Eric through three phases of his life, from childhood in revolution-era Iran, to young adulthood as a Princeton student, to middle age as a high-level attorney.  The author does a good job evoking the confusion of a young person forced by the political turmoil in Iran to start an entirely new life in the US by way of France.  In particular, he perfectly captures the tendency of many of the uprooted Iranian youth arriving in 1980's New York to make themselves feel important by claiming some royal-adjacent status, however tenuous.  It's mystifying that this book was classified as a thriller, because it has absolutely nothing to do with that genre.  I couldn’t decide whether it felt more like an embellished memoir or a recycled term paper.

The story might have had an easier time holding my interest if not for the author’s relentless over-explanation of everything.  Instead of allowing the reader to understand the characters' feelings, motivations, maturity, etc. from their actions, he keeps spelling out what everything means.  The sexual details are excessive and frankly boring.  An abundance of forced (or worse, overly obvious) similes serves to distract from the flow of the plot.  I found the numerous comparisons of high-ranking lawyers to gods or kings heavy-handed to the point of absurdity—and that was before I read the author’s bio at the end and saw that he is a lawyer.  

What this book needs more than anything is a strong editor to cut through all the self-indulgent, overwrought prose.  Specific words or phrases that may illuminating or even delightful the first time around become annoying tics the third or fourth.  “Fulgurant” is effective the first time, mannerism the third.  A good editor would intervene when the author becomes overly enamored of his own phrasing and keeps referring to the “alembic of time.”  The same editor would doubtless tell a novelist who feels the urge to use the word “velleities” even once (never mind multiple times) to make up his mind about whether he is trying to write engaging fiction or an essay for freshman lit crit.
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Alexandre Montagu's Riddle of the Sphinx is a narrative that is built like a mirrored triptych. Each of the three parts embodies a part of the ancient riddle of the Sphinx and develops a part of the protagonist's life. The parts, separately and combined, cast complicated shadows and illuminations on the other parts and on the whole. The thought-provoking narrative is realistic and detailed, as well as eloquently and authentically expressed. It is presented as three separate stages of life with unexplained gaps in between. The passages of time and place, the differing maturities, and the abrupt changes of focus often seemed to be separate stories instead of one person experiencing such diverse experiences.

The first part is about Kayvan, a child of privilege in Tehran, Iran during the waning days of the Shah's reign and the rise to power of the ayatollahs. I was most impacted by the contrast between the child's naivety and the historical account. I often thought as I read "I remember these events being reported in the news" and that this child was getting the entire emotional impact but, with only partial understanding, tried to piece together meaning of events that happened in his life.

The second part of the book is about a student at Princeton, Eric (who changed his name from Kayvan when he left Iran for the west) who is struggling with developing personal relationships with others, with bisexual feelings and same-sex attraction, and with an emotionally overwhelming clandestine love affair, as well as with defining himself in a confusing world, all while studying French Literature and trying to decide what kind of life and career to pursue. Often, the narration in each of these sections seems like a heart-to-heart conversation of private conflicting thoughts at critical times in the protagonist's life so he can talk it out and come to some kind of closure. He leave a lot of parts of the puzzle unsolved. There is confusing disparity between what happens, or appears to happen, in Eric's life and how hechooses to see it.

The third part of the narrative is a mature, older and wiser character who has gone to law school, gained wealth,  and is a married father of children, becoming philosophical about all the things that shaped his life. He seems to be having an internal conversation and wrestling match with many ideas of world literature and philosophy - among them his childhood family culture, classic stoicism, French literature, Bhuddist philosophy, free-will vs. predestination, and blind luck - to explain the development of his life and success. Large areas of contradictions, of serendipity, and of blank areas in his account tend to add to, rather than detract from, the questioning and the message of the narrative. All in all, this is one of those "books that make you think." It's a book where the jury is still out at the end and it makes you wonder whether Eric is being completely honest in his life story and whether you can trust what he says about his life and about Life in general.

I would definitely recommend this book to readers who want to ponder or discuss "big ideas." I think it would be an excellent book to read and discuss with friends or in a bookclub. It might cause conflicting opinions and clarifying discussions about what the book says and about what it leaves out.
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