Marc Levy can be thought of as the euro zone's answer to Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, or as a kind of pulp-fiction Nicolas Sarkozy.
Levy, a former architect, has made himself into France's most popular writer, with his potboilers translated into 43 languages and selling more than 23 million copies worldwide. His first published fiction, released in 1999, was turned into the Reese Witherspoon movie Just Like Heaven in 2005 by Steven Spielberg, and a later novel was also morphed into a feature film, 2008's London Mon Amour.
Yet another of his annual publications has become the basis for a TV miniseries. Eat your heart out, Jean-Paul Sartre!
The First Night is a sequel to Levy's The First Day. In this pair of fictions, the author, who is reportedly a huge fan of Jules Verne, uses plot devices borrowed from Verne's 19th-century adventure fiction, conspiracy-theory fantasies such as The Da Vinci Code, and the pulpiest of science fiction and Harlequin romance elements to frame a love story between Keira, an archeologist, and Adrian, an astrophysicist.
Former lovers, the two Indiana Jones surrogates are drawn together again in an around-the-world quest to solve a mystery that involves the origins of the universe, alien landings on Earth 400 million years ago and a murderous cabal of mysterious figures who are out to prevent our protagonists from reassembling a magic stone.
Keira and Adrian are the key figures in both books, and the jacket copy for The First Night gushes, "Love is the ultimate adventure, but it can be dangerous." A cruel reviewer might be tempted to rework this motto and say, "Love is the ultimate adventure, but even when tarted up with every possible Boy's Own Adventure cliché, it can still be deadly dull."
Despite a hyperactive plot that features world travel, gun battles, hidden chambers, ancient secrets and allegedly passionate love, The First Night makes this reader's blood run tepid. The characterizations are banal, and if there is a new idea or plot device on offer, it is lost somewhere behind all the tacky old furniture borrowed from other authors.
There are a few flickers of genuine human interest, mainly in the protagonists' relationship to secondary characters such as the guilt-ridden Walter or the mysterious academic Ivory, but by and large this is a thriller without thrills and a romance that fails to stir.
But even if this reviewer is less than impressed by Levy's work, the French superstar has clearly found a large and loyal following. Perhaps books like his, with plots that depend heavily on offstage manipulation by mysterious evil forces and a sense that the world is full of charged secrets that can be revealed only by heroic action-figure scientists, are popular because they portray an enchanted world, numinous and full of meaning, a world in which brave adventurers can unearth secrets and master magic.
Even when presented in clumsy prose and implausible plot, such a world can provide for many readers a comforting alternative to the flat, disenchanted one we inhabit today.
It would be churlish, in a time of diminishing literacy, to begrudge any reader the pleasure of any text, and I wish Marc Levy fans much delight from this book and from the next one he will doubtless deliver in 2012. As for me, I think I'll pass and reread some Jules Verne.
Tom Sandborn is a journalist, poet and activist in Vancouver.