I’d read and enjoyed Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (to an extent), and The Host. I found both to be entertaining, even while they shared similar flaws. The Chemist was in some ways a total departure from anything she’d done so far, in the sense that there was nothing fantastical or otherworldly about the story (no aliens, and no vampires), and it was more thriller than romance—though there was plenty of that too. That, and the writing style were the primary similarities between The Chemist and her previous works. Meyer’s brand of romance in all of her books is characteristically both engaging and exasperating… but not enough to make me put the book down, apparently.
The premise: Alex (not her real name) is a doctor technically, though she was recruited by a very clandestine branch of the CIA while she was still in medical school because of her research into certain chemicals which could be used to extract information from potential enemies of state. She became a torturer, referred to within the department as “The Chemist”—an interesting profession for a protagonist intended to be likable. Eventually her department decides that they don’t need her anymore, and they can’t just fire her because she knows too much. They send three agents to kill her, all of whom are obviously unsuccessful. But the fourth instead recruits her help for one last job: she is to capture and interrogate a history teacher who leads a double life, partnering with a Mafia boss in Mexico with the goal of spreading a worldwide pandemic. She is skeptical, but because the stakes are so high, she takes the job, and kidnaps and tortures the man. But of course, he turns out to be innocent. And then they fall in love. It sounds absurd, but Meyer almost manages to pull it off, only because Daniel (the victim) is such a kind and forgiving person. He is, in fact, pretty much Jesus… which I guess is true of almost every male hero of a romance novel. I still took issue with how rapidly and hopelessly Daniel falls for Alex, aside from the whole “she abducted and tortured him” thing—he admits that he was head over heels for her from the second they met on the train, before the abduction and the torture. His speeches of undying devotion were a little too over-the-top for me, but I kept listening anyway, because the scenario they were in was like nothing I’d ever read before. (That in itself is a feat.)
I’ll try not to throw in too many spoilers beyond this point—Meyer uses a number of deus ex machina devices that even Alex admits are hackneyed and make it seem like she’s living in a novel. This admission ironically allows the reader to overlook them (because after all, isn’t truth sometimes stranger than fiction?) One such intervention I overlooked… but when two and three fantastical coincidences stacked up, my suspension of disbelief wore a bit thin. But again, the whole espionage aspect of the story was fascinating enough that I stuck with it. Meyer knows how to write a gripping tale and bait you so you keep going, anxious to know what happens next. Her action sequences are terrific, and her characters, while not exactly groundbreaking, are engaging enough that I cared what happened to them. Despite her career, I even sympathized with Alex: I understood why she was who she was, and given her back story, it made sense. (There were a few chapters toward the end where I thought she might be a truly despicable human being, but this later proved to be intentionally misleading.)
Overall, I’d recommend The Chemist—it’s entertaining, but not a masterpiece.
My rating: ***