Justin Cronin. That’s right. That’s the name of the guy who wrote this book. I couldn’t remember, even after reading the book. Why is that? Well, his name certainly doesn’t ring any bells with me. If this were his first novel, I wouldn’t be surprised, but it’s actually his third, and based on what I read about him on the dustjacket flap, I doubt I would go out and read his other two books based on their summary alone. So even after reading the book, I probably won’t have any name recognition with this guy. What compelled me to read it, anyway?
First, I noticed the summary of the book sounded a lot like The Stand by Stephen King. I thought that was a good start (Swan Song and The Road started there, too, and were both awfully good), but then I noticed King’s own praise printed on the back of the book. OK, I thought, that may not mean too much; he also heaped a lot of praise on Jodi Picoult, an author who I felt was overwrought. But it’s definitely enough to get me started. And how did that go?
By the time I reached page 8 of this book, I was hooked. It may have been even sooner than that, but I do remember looking at where I was in the book when I realized that I wasn’t going to be quitting it any time soon. By page 17, I already felt emotionally wrenched, and I had a moment where I thought, “How does that happen?” How does one get wrapped up in a character so quickly? I had the feeling that I was in the hands of a good author, and I settled in for a book that I expected would haunt my thoughts, enough so that I would start looking forward to the time when I could return to the book. For the most part, that was the case.
The Passage is not a perfect novel. It begs comparison to King’s own The Stand, since the story is a massive post-apocalyptic novel that’s about rebuilding after the destruction. This isn’t really a spoiler — this fact is mentioned on the dustjacket flap — but that isn’t made clear until about 200 pages into the book. What this means is that the novel is broken down into two distinct parts — the destruction, and life afterward. With The Stand, King managed to put all these parts together with a cohesive story that led logically from one part to another, using characters that popped up throughout the narrative. The Passage has a character that shows up in all the parts, but in some of them, the appearance is brief, meaning that you have two different stories in this novel. It makes the novel a little disjointed, and it’s easy to lose focus on the story, since the author gets us all wrapped up in a handful of characters, only to dismiss them and move on to some different ones each time. It requires a lot of investment on the reader’s part, and it’s risky, since it makes it easier to quit on the book when it shifts away from the characters you really want to see more. Cronin manages to make the story continually interesting, but I would have preferred a more straightforward approach to the characters and the story.
In addition, the book itself was a bit schizophrenic, in that about half of the novel was a portrayal of how the world devolves into chaos due to the release of a biohazard, while the rest of the novel was a tale of survival after the fact. The progression made sense — the two halves are clearly related — but it was almost like you get settled in to read a book of one type, only to start reading a different one a few pages later. It’s not necessarily bad, but it did take me longer to finish the second half of the book than the first half, because it just wasn’t as interesting.
In the end, I was satisfied when I finished the book, but only because I had finished it, not because I felt like it was some redeeming story. That’s a real shame, too, because the first third of this book was well-paced, well-told, and populated with very likable characters. If he had managed to maintain that level of storytelling with the entire book, I would be more interested in the book overall. As it is, though, I can only recommend it with hesitation.