The Riddle of the Sphinx

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Jun 2019

Member Reviews

"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

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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A very well-written book that engages and mystifies......but only up to the end. The story of Keyvan/Eric is a page-turner from youth during the Islamic revolution in Iran in the late 70s to his stint as an undergrad at Princeton. It is the story of a young man finding his sexuality and is told with a lot of heart. 

By the end of the second section I saw where the author was going--very clever.

If only he'd left it at that.

The third section shows Eric as an adult in a mostly unhappy marriage and high pressure legal career. Here is where the train comes off the tracks. If the author had left the mystery to the reader, this would have been an interesting and thought-provoking book. Instead, he feels the need to show off his comparative literature and philosophy chops and "explain" everything. The moralizing about how fate works and how to approach our lives and choices drags the finale to a screeching buzzkilling halt. Worse, his main character who has been completely "human" throughout the book now buys into the author's Buddhist-esque diatribe and becomes hard to reconcile with his previous life.

On a side note: I may be reading too much into this, but there seems to also be an undercurrent of anti-gay sentiment. It is only when the protagonist pursues his gay desires that his life takes a fatal turn--first in pursuing his disappeared friend/"first crush" and later in college dealing with a first love experience. Eric finds the author's "secret" for inner peace and understanding only when he accepts himself in his heterosexual marriage and reflects about his younger selves. Like I say I may be reading too much into it, summary--great book, terrible ending.
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A book based on alternate realities, a sort of "what if", Sliding doors scenario. Keyvan is growing up in an upper class, waelthy Iranina family in Tehran when the Shah is deposed. His mother and granny try to escape the country for Paris and the Us by plane but his mother is stopped at the airport. In one scenario the family return to their home and try to escape over the mountains with people traffickers but thwarted his mother is imprisoned and Keyvan returns ot his private school with dire consequences. In another scenario, Keyvan leaves the country with his grandma and his mother stays behind and tries to unite with them at a later date. Keyvan goes to Priceton and has a  comlicated love affair with an all American jock that is doomed. In the final scenario the family all leave Iran and Keyvan grows up to overcome his university love affair and marries and has a child . He becomes a top lawyer but feels unfulfilled until he has a dream that has flashes of the other alternate realities and he vows to become a more engaged and empathetic human being.

I found the first scenario, where Keyvan is trapped in Tehran to be the most thrilling and well written part of the book. I felt the alternate reality jumps were a bit jarring, some characters stories lead nowhere. The inal section with Keyvan's dream and  "spiritual" rebirth read like it was part of another book and din't for me blend well with what had preceeded it. I also thought his gay love affair was a ho hum, see it coming tale "by numbers".

This book was a real mixed bag for me, great stuff in Tehran but weaker storytelling in the West.
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I like how different this book is from others that I've read. My favorite part was the first third as I liked having a view into what happened in Iran. I also liked how the three main parts of the story were tied together so neatly at the end even though I wasn't sure how it could. I appreciate having the chance to read this book
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The riddle of the sphinx is one of the very few books that I couldn't put aside. A dramatic epic beginning in the 1970s in Iran to the western world of London, Paris and New York during a man's life. Where he explores his sexual orientation, love and life. 

I would have loved to continue with the book even after the story ended. It's a must read I highly recommend buying.

Thank you NetGalley for a copy of this book
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