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The Riddle of the Sphinx

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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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"The Riddle of the Sphinx" is a very well written book.  I had not heard of the sliding doors approach until I read the reviews on this book after I finished the book.  It worked until the ending.  I really enjoyed the first two sections with the history of Iran, although I thought at times it read like a text book.  I also enjoyed his time at Princeton.  I think the ending could be a bit more realistic and not just have to tie everything up into a bow.  Not many people turn over a new leaf after years of marriage and a high pressure job.

The book is very thought provoking.  As I was thinking about this review, how could my life been different if different choices would have been made.  At first I thought I did not escape a country in revolution, I did not make a choice between gay/straight, AIDs was not a big worry, career/marriage. However, I thought about it some more and there were many things that I could have chosen one path over another and my life would not be the same life that I have today. 

I was given a copy of this book by NetGalley for a honest review.
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The three part story of Keyvan/Eric was a mixed bag.   The history of the Shah going into exile and the rise of the Ayatollah was very well done in Part I and the complex interpersonal relationships in part 2 were equally well done.   I can't say much more than that about this work.   

I found it difficult to get through the first couple of chapters, but then found myself engaged enough in the story of trying to escape Iran that I could not put the book down.  The trials and tribulations, and the anxiety of trying to get out of the country at the time of changing regimes came across effectively.

Similarly, I found Part 2, with Eric at Princeton to be equally engaging.   While he started exploring his homosexuality in Part 1, homosexual relationships became a central part of his Princeton years.  It was hard to put the book down following Eric through this period of self exploration. 

I feel the book fell apart in Part 3, the law firm years.   The first few chapters detailed his failed or failing marriage that all of a sudden changes with a dream that chronicles his life, leading to an epiphany in Eric.   The problem with this section is that then there is a shift to where  the narrator explains this epiphany in terms of an amalgamation of moral philosophy courses.   I wasn't reading a novel anymore, I was transformed back to college reading a textbook, which was a profoundly disappointing experience.   

I consider myself to be pretty well read, with several graduate degrees and even so, I had to download my Kindle dictionary to look up some of the SAT words that the author sprinkled throughout the text.   I feel this was completely unnecessary and detracts from the readability of the text.   

I felt the conclusion was completely unsatisfying.   I wanted to know how or if the family reconciled or dealt with Eric's bisexuality and what I did not want to read was a passage out of a moral philosophy textbook.    The basic premise of creative writing is always "Show, don't Tell" and in this case, Montagu "told" us too much and didn't show us anything at the end. For me, the Riddle of the Sphinx is lost somewhere in the summary lecture.
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My rating:
Story: 4 out of 5 stars
Writing: 4 out of 5 stars
Character development: 4 out of 5 stars
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Review:
The book tells the story of an Iranian man from an advantaged background at 3 different points in his life. The first part is set in the 1970’s and sees the man as a boy looking to escape the Iranian Revolution. The second part follows him during his student years at Princeton, struggling with his sexuality. Finally in the third and final part, the man is an adult and works as a lawyer who at first glance appears successful and content but reading on you soon find out that life is not as it appears to be, he in fact questions his life, achievements and happiness.
The book is well written and based on an interesting: “sliding door” alternative outcomes concept. This made the book interesting and different. The first part of the book set in Iran during the Revolution is fascinating as it gives you a relevant inside into Iranian culture and a historical overview of that part of Iranian history. Which I found was the most interesting part of the book. The ending of the book wasn’t what I expected. I also found it ended a little bit abrupt but overall I thought the concept of the book was refreshing and I enjoyed reading it.
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This is a fantastic,challenging and beautifully written book. It starts and ends with the life of a successful New York lawyer who may be professionally esteemed but is internally not at peace. In between there is a superb description of the effect on his family and others of the .Iranian revolution and their efforts to escape. At Princeton as a student,Eric as he is now known,has difficulties accepting his sexual preferences and the homeoerotic chapters are sensitively and elegantly written. Now married,he eventually seeks internal peace but does he find it? This is quite simply a masterpiece.
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As with its title Riddle, the book is divided into three sections that present the life of a man from a privileged childhood in Iran in the late 1970's, through young manhood in Princeton in the 80's, culminating in experience as a successful corporate lawyer as an adult.  This has been called a "sliding door" novel, in that alternate outcomes have been constructed, and the less than smooth transitions between "lives" is the only reason I gave 4 stars instead of 5.  The writing is lush, and of particular interest is the first, the part about Keyvan's growing up in Tehran, with much of the history of that turbulent time explained clearly and with relevance to the proceedings.  Keyvan's transformation into Eric caused me some confusion at first, as I hadn't read other reviews which explained the concept of the book.  Here a more scholarly approach, with a great deal being included, again with relevance, concerning Eric's pursuit of Proust and his own sexual awakening.  Montagu is clever in his treatment, and I don't agree with other reviewers' opinions of the ending.  It ended the way it had to.
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A novel which plays with alternative versions of what might have happened. At the time of the fall of the Shah of Iran, a boy from a very privileged background tries to escape. A Princeton scholar seeking to put his Iranian background behind him falls in love. A lawyer who has just clinched a major deal questions whether his life is what he really wants, and meets someone from his Iranian past. There is a clever play with possible storylines here, but I am afraid I never really felt engaged. The ending disappointed. And I would have preferred some recognition of the brutal underside of Iranian life under the Shah: instead, all the brutality is reserved for the Khomeini regime.
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The Riddle of the Sphinx is a novel that moves through alternate realities to show the twists and whims of life and the effect of becoming aware of this. A boy in Iran in the 1970s looks to escape, a Princeton literature student falls in love with a tennis jock who is failing French, and a lawyer in New York questions his life and happiness. In these three sections, the novel shows the different ways a life can change across alternative versions.

This is a gripping novel for the most part, particularly by the second section where it becomes clear what the novel is doing. The first two sections are engaging, showing very different worlds but clearly the same character, only changed by circumstance and life. The third is less tense, partly because the main character is now a man at the top of his field with a wife and children, and the way in which he grapples with and then deals with dissatisfaction is, ironically, somewhat dissatisfying. It isn't easy to explain why without giving away what happens, but it did make me rush through the ending. However, the sections in Iran and Princeton really feel like they are creating an atmosphere and a sense of place and time, which makes them work well as versions of reality.

The novel was described as something suspenseful and thrilling, but really these elements feel less important than the use of character and exploration of identity within it. It is the sense of the main character that really drives forward the novel and makes it engaging, and this is perhaps why it is a shame that the ending feels dissatisfying, because much of the novel does draw you deep into the worlds of the main character.
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I was drawn to this book because of the historical fiction angle, and that aspect was beautifully written. The Iranian revolution, and life either side of it, was fascinating and heartbreaking. Unfortunately, this was only one section of the book, and I didn't find the later periods nearly so interesting. The plethora of philosophical references went over my head, and the tone was rather self-important. I found the ending abrupt, and seemed to come out of nowhere, as though the author himself had become bored with the story and decided to wrap it up quickly.
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“The Riddle of the Sphinx” is a riveting, exquisitely written account of a young man's exploration of himself through the unsettled history of his native land. It is not only a finely elaborated story of a love affair but also a story of a young boy's courage and growth into manhood. A very well-written book that engages and perplexes the reader. Thank you NetGalley for the Advance Reader Copy in exchange for my honest review.
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'The Riddle of the Sphinx' by Alexandre Montagu is a psychological drama with an interesting premise, but I personally found it difficult to get into. It's an interesting premise but let down by unrealistic dialogue and clumsy exposition unfortunately.

~ Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to review this title.~
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Montague is a brilliant writer. He develops the two main characters in the first part of the book so that you really get to know them from their male adolescent point of view at a difficult time in the history of Iran. In the next part of the book he writes about two students who are drawn to each other while attending Princeton University. My only complaint about this novel is that the sexual encounters are too vividly written, leaving nothing to the imagination.
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'I had so much to do this weekend and have spent most of it devouring your book. Just finished it. Sheer genius.'
A seamlessly sewn together tale of mind bending suspense and some history to boot
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Well, if you enjoy a good riddle, this book is perfect ! When reading, you keep wondering who told you a couple of sentences you've just read ... And, all the events, locations, people, ring a bell in your memory ... It is so easy to read, to understand, to feel the main character is your friend, or the friend you had a couple of years ago ! 
As the story unfold, you are looking for the plot, where is the thread ? You thought it was like a biography, about someone born in Teheran before the end of a 2500 years old monarchy ( you'll lean so much about Iran). 
Then, you are in Paris, and without knowing how, back to the USA ! 
But where is the travel ? Inside your mind or through the story ? Or both ? You'll know if you read the book to the end !
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This book could be important. The potential is there, but what gets in the way is the textbook like narration that's a bit pedantic and unemotional. Kind of like WIll Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, the story within a story is an excellent vehicle, but it is made clumsy with an enviable SAT vocabulary and a rehashing of history along a bumpy, twisting timeline as the Persian empire crumbles and members of the royal family and their inner sanctum establish lavish lives outside of Tehran. Identity is a major component and the clash of culture versus self and the choices a person makes to establish their own place in life is a major factor. Reaction to adversity, the kind that could alter our path, is a ground-shaking force and its reverberation is what makes the time jumping an excellent component of this story. But what the reader needs to feel the impact, but the blunt force never makes more than a scratch.
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The Riddle of the Sphinx takes a Sliding Doors approach to telling the story of Keyvan, also known as Eric, an Iranian lawyer who now lives in New York. The book shifts from the present to Keyvan's early childhood in Iran during the 1970's. Many people may find this to be the most interesting part of the book because it delves into a subject we don't often find in American novels: the Iranian Revolution and how it impacted different classes of Iranian society. 

The next section of the book explores the protagonist's college years at Princeton. Eric has a gay relationship with another student named Mark. Without getting too specific, the relationship is set up to fail. This should come to no surprise to the reader since it's clearly established early in the novel that Keyvan/Eric is married to a woman during the present time. 

The last section of the book explores Eric's married life in New York. Again, without getting too specific, the book takes a Buddhist approach in its denouement. Because of this, the ending wasn't quite what I expected it to be. I'm not sure I agree with some of the choices Eric made, but I do admire the author for taking a different approach than what I had anticipated. Sometimes it's hard for writers to strike the right balance between artistry and preachiness, but I felt Montagu handled this fairly well.
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