'The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair': How is the European hit translating in America?

'Quebert' is a sensation in Europe but has received a more mixed reception in the US.

'The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair' is by Joel Dicker.

Some European bestsellers like Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or the “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling come to America and quickly captivate US audiences as well, becoming global hits.

Others, however, seem to have more trouble translating, which is perhaps the case with Joel Dicker’s novel “The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.”

Dicker’s book became a runaway bestseller in Europe after it was first published in 2012 and received many positive reviews (Guardian critic Sam Leith wrote that it “does nothing interesting in literary terms at all” but said he felt alone in disliking the book – “So many critics seem to have been knocked on their behinds by Dicker's novel that I can't be sure I'm not missing something… they see a masterpiece.”). It received the literary prize the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie and was on the shortlist for the prestigious Prix Goncourt.

However, “Quebert” has done less well in terms of sales in the US, appearing on the New York Times trade paperback fiction bestseller list for the week of June 15 in eighth place but disappearing after that, and popping up on the IndieBound trade paperback fiction list for the week of June 5, listed at number 16 in the “on the rise” category, but also falling off after that. New Yorker writer Alice Gregory wrote that, according to Nielsen BookScan, "Quebert" had sold 13,000 copies by June 26 (though Gregory called the Nielsen BookScan "not-quite-reliable"). The sales numbers, said Gregory, are "by no means meager, but also not mind-blowing, especially considering the enormous run."

In addition, some critics have loved the book but others have given it a more mixed reception. Amazon picked the novel as one of their best books of May and IndieBound selected it as an Indie Next List Great Read, while NYT critic Chelsea Cain called the book “unimpeachably terrific.”

“If Norman Mailer had been accused of murder and Truman Capote had collaborated with Dominick Dunne on a tell-all about it, the result might have turned out something like this,” she wrote. 

However, others who were less enamored included Washington Post writer Richard Lipez, who found the book to be “kind of enjoyable in a corn-syrupy way. It’s hard to tell how much the author means for readers to take seriously in this tale… There are some nice satirical touches about small-town New England life… Most of the humor, though, is inadvertent… Dicker’s big finish… is neatly and entertainingly pulled off. To get to this borderline-plausible conclusion, however, readers must keep straight innumerable flashbacks and flash-forwards and novels within novels, many of which feel redundant.” However, Lipez noted that the book “churns along at such a good clip and is rendered with such high emotion and apparent deep conviction” that he believes the book will do well in terms of sales. 

NPR writer Heller McAlpin was unimpressed with the book. “The writing… is disappointingly pedestrian,” she wrote. “While the doozy of a story is practically guaranteed to hook you, the more quickly you turn the pages and gloss over the prose, the better… its young Swiss author has mastered the art of whiplash plot twists, [but] the clichés pile up even more quickly than the bodies.” 

Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly critic Darren Franich gave the book a C grade.

“Quebert is a really, truly, wonderfully bad book filled with more than 600 pages of purple prose and nonsense twists, of dialogue ripped straight out of a Roy Lichtenstein thought balloon,” he wrote. “The plot thickens at the breakneck pace of bread rising. I would advise skipping the first half to get to the good stuff, but then you'd miss out on some utterly pretentious showmanship.”

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