Review: The Egyptologist, Arthur Phillips

I’m worried that I’m maybe losing my ability to love new books. You know that phenomenon where if you buy a something, you’re more likely to consider that something worth the money than if you just test it out in a store? I’m worried that the reverse thing to that is happening: that my desire to pare down my library to meet space requirements is keeping me from loving new books the way they deserve to be loved. The last book I truly loved, like the last book where I thought, Damn, this book has to keep happening, was in early October. Y’all, that was so long ago! Why haven’t I loved a book in almost four months?What is happening to me.

That said, I enjoyed The Egyptologist a lot, and I am prepared to read more Arthur Phillips. Half of the story is the diary of Egyptologist Ralph Trilipush, on an underfunded mission to discover the lost tomb of the possibly fictional pharaoh Atum-Hadu. (Meanwhile, in another part of Egypt, Howard Carter is discovering King Tut’s tomb.) The other half of the book is a letter written thirty years later by private investigator Harold Ferrell, recounting the investigation that brought him into contact with Trilipush’s work, life, and fiancee.

The Egyptologist is a wonderful example of unreliable narrators done right. Trilipush and Ferrell are both men with a certain level of expertise in their fields, and they are also men whose desires get in the way of their judgment. If either of them ever approached their subject with clear eyes, they would get the answer; but they are unable to do it. It’s clear from the beginning that Trilipush is slightly crazy and extremely egotistical, and the fun of his story is trying to read between the lines and figure out what’s true and what’s all in his brain. The fun with Ferrell’s side of the narration is that he starts out doing okay, investigating like a Mars would, and then his emotions begin to increasingly cloud his ability to do his job.

Spoilers ensue in this paragraph only. The end of the book was wonderfully satisfying and disturbing and tragic. I remember my mother talking to me about the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet when I was a kid, and she said that what makes it tragic is what a near miss everything is: how often it seems like the star-crossed lovers are going to escape their doom. If there hadn’t been that one roadblock; if Mercutio had just shut up and gone home; if Romeo had waited two more minutes in the tomb. So the quality of tragedy that I particularly admire is its non-inevitability. The ending of The Egyptologist is beautifully, gloriously preventable, with the added bonus that one protagonist just goes balls-out crazy, and the other one refuses to see the solution to the mystery even when it’s right under his nose. Yay! [End spoilers]

I was going to make the complaint that the queer characters are very unsympathetic, but then I remembered that the straight characters are equally unsympathetic. So I’m revising my complaint to be: Everyone is completely unsympathetic. Nobody is nice, nobody behaves with integrity. When the author doesn’t bother humanizing his characters, the book tends to come off — I don’t know. I don’t engage with it on the same emotional level, so my enjoyment is all intellectual, and that’s great cause yay for brains, but I enjoy a book more when my brain and heart are both engaged.

Hence, three stars! In the past I have thought of three stars as meaning “yeah it was fine” in a sort of “meh” tone, but I’ve decided to start thinking of three stars the way Netflix does, i.e., “I liked it.” I currently have my own Netflix account for the first time (I know, I am not an early adopter), and their rating system is so clear and reasonable. So that’s what I’m using now. It’s not about how technically proficient the book was (because then I would give this four stars for sure); it’s about how much I liked it.

Thanks to Dana for mentioning The Egyptologist regularishly, so that I never forgot I wanted to read it. I will now accept further Arthur Phillips recommendations. The Tragedy of Arthur looks slightly daunting but I will try it if y’all think it’s good.

  • Great review! I liked the ssssssspoilers paragraph, not because I was mentioned, but because spoilers are fun and that was the part that made me want to read the book. (at B & N, on my Nook, for free).

    Also, I just flat-out loved The Fault In Our Stars. Heart and Mind working actively, but Heart dominating (I cried a river). I know there’s been SO MUCH BUZZ that it may prejudice you, but you might want to give it a try.

    Also, Holy Ghost Girl – less heart-wrenching and maybe slightly less awesome, but she’s a terrific, witty writer and the story is mesmerizing. I am loaning it out all over the place – I guess I will put you next on the list.

    • Did you care for it?

      I do, I do want to read The Fault in Our Stars. But just not right now, Mumsy! Just not right now! Later and not now!

      Don’t send me Holy Ghost Girl, I promise I will get it from the library.

  • I loved The Song is You by Phillips so much. I loved his writing. But I don’t know if I’d love a book if I didn’t love any of the characters!

    • I usually don’t love a book if I don’t care for the characters. Sigh.

  • aw, sorry to hear you haven’t been loving books. 🙁 I hope one comes along to sweep you off your feet soon!

    • I hope so too! I miss that experience of being swept away.

  • I LOVE unreliable narrators, and the more unreliable, the better as far as I am concerned, but the tendency to make characters unlikable has started to annoy me. I mean, like you say, yay for brains, but when I can’t even feel the slightest amount of sympathy for their plights, it’s hard for me to connect in any type of meaningful way with a character. I don’t have to love them, but c’mon, can’t they at least be a little bit likeable? I usually tend to say that if a character grows throughout the book, I am happy, but sometimes I can’t even see the growth because of excessive bad behavior. That makes me sad. I could go on and on about this, but I will stop hogging your blog now! Very awesome review today, Jenny. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts!

    • Well, the main character grew in that he became MUCH MORE CRAZY — which again isn’t my favorite thing, descend into madness books. Actually, given all the things this book contains that I don’t tend to like, I’m surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did!

  • I was afraid when I started reading this, afraid that you would say you didn’t like The Egyptologist and then I would have to go all berserk and flail around and agree that the characters aren’t likeable but THAT’S NOT THE FUN PART and then I calmed down, because you had fun with it and it’s the only book by this author I’ve ever read but I loved it enough to buy it and try to get other people to read it and you’re the first other person I know who actually has!

    • If you had done that then I would have said BUT I WANT THAT TO BE THE FUN PART because I do prefer character-driven books. I do. I’m afraid. But I did like this, Jeanne!

  • I read this one years ago and it left such a bad taste in my mouth that I promptly sold off my copy and never looked back. And yet, when I see other Arthur Phillips books out there, I am always tempted to read them. I guess it’s good for him but probably bad for me. Those characters were REALLY unlikable!

    • Kristen! Hi!

      That is very fair, the bad taste in your mouth. I have had that exact experience with other books, and I can well imagine that another Arthur Phillips book might do that to me. I was disposed to like this one because my girl Elizabeth Peters liked it.

  • I have a couple of unread Arthur Phillips, this books included. Remember my comment about buying books from authors I think I might like? Well, Arthur Phillips is one of them. I think I have a copy of Prague, too. I won’t recommend it since eh, I haven’t read it yet 🙂

  • Amy

    I read this one a couple years ago. I remember liking it but I don’t think I was blown away. I keep seeing Prague around so maybe I’m meant to pick up another Arthur Phillips book.

    Sorry to hear about the book disappointment. Hopefully one amazing book will come your way very soon.

  • Not sure if I want to read this, but I did avoid the spoilery paragraph. And I always try to read your tags.

  • I’m sorry too that you have been on a long run of meh books. Maybe some sort of reverse tempting of fate might do the trick. So you would say, okay book universe, I am only going to care about rereading splendid books now, and if I a new book falls into my hands with a pretty cover, I might just look at it from time to time and read a couple of chapters, but the heart of my reading life is elsewhere! Well, it’s only a suggestion. You need a sort of rain dance for good books.

  • “I enjoy a book more when my brain and heart are both engaged.” What a delicious combination when that actually happens! I really hope you find a book soon that fits those requirements.

  • Dude, dude, dude! I read this book in 2010 and also gave it 3 out of 5 stars and found it somewhat underwhelming. Even though it had all of these really great elements, I felt like it lost the plot a bit and somehow didn’t live up to its potential. It was ok, but it was not as awesome as it could have been. So I think maybe your lack of love for recent reads isn’t so much anything to do with you as it is with the books you’ve been picking? They seem like the kind of books you take out on a few dates, have a few harmless kisses, and then send on their way while you seek out your real soulmate. Sometimes you’ve gotta kiss a few frogs and all that…

  • I think I liked it because it was so funny. When something that awful happens at the end of a book, and you’re laughing, you’re either a psychopath, or the author deftly handled the fine line between tragedy and comedy well enough. I thought Trilipush was awful. Actually, everyone was awful, like you said. But then, my favorite book is Wuthering Heights, so I guess I can stomach awful characters as long as I care about them for some reason.