My rating: 3 of 5 stars
To say Charles Darwin was controversial in his day is an understatement, but although close to two hundred years have passed, he’s scarcely less controversial in our own day. There are many mysteries surrounding the way he conducted his life: he did not publish his theory for nearly twenty years, after his famous voyage, his health and nerves were poor, and he rarely traveled again. John Darnton has constructed a novel around these factors, with an eye toward explaining what could have caused Darwin’s odd behaviors. He builds his tale around the efforts of Hugh and Beth, two present-day scholars who independently decide to look into these questions and end up collaborating. And find an explanation they do, but not without a landslide of happy coincidences that pour enlightening new evidence into their laps. The author seems to have done his homework, and his premises are reasonably credible in themselves. His prose is also competent. With respect to characters, Darnton’s portrayal of Darwin’s daughter Lizzie is colorful, but most of the others, including Darwin himself, fall a bit flat. Still, the mystery of what really happened to Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle is more than strong enough to keep those pages turning.