Monday, July 28, 2008

Book Review: The Philosopher's Apprentice

Author: James Morrow
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-135144-0

Londa Sabachthani is seventeen, brilliant and thoroughly amoral.

Mason Ambrose is a twenty-something philosopher who, on the occasion of his dissertation defense, has recently flushed his promising academic career down the toilet.

Londa’s mother, Edwina, believes that Mason is the perfect candidate to instruct her daughter in moral reasoning and she is willing to pay him handsomely to assume that responsibility.

Mason arrives at Edwina and Londa’s home, located on a lush tropical island, and quickly discovers that this apparent paradise is the setting for some deeply troubling mysteries. Nevertheless, he throws himself into the task of educating Londa via role play. As they work their way through the teachings of Kohlberg, Jesus Christ, the Stoics and others, Londa gradually develops her personal ethical system. She also becomes privy to Mason’s discoveries regarding the family’s secrets. What she learns changes her life and significantly affects her later actions.

Approximately ten years later, Londa is the head of a philanthropic organization that is set to launch an earth-changing charitable initiative. To Mason’s chagrin, she has adopted an end-justifies-the-means ethic by which she defends her plans to boldly commit several illegal acts in the cause of creating a tremendous social good. When her plans go awry, Londa and her mother pay tragic prices for Londa’s ambition.

Morrow’s tale explores a range of ethical theories and issues in an inventive, engaging manner. The dialogs and role plays between Londa and Mason are effective devices for transmitting what would have quickly become dry philosophical content had they been presented less creatively. The plot is filled with surprises that add fascinating, and always relevant, layers of mystery and complexity to the story. The characters are unique, to say the least. Sometimes they arouse the reader’s empathy and sometimes they infuriate the reader, just as real live acquaintances do every day. The story’s greatest weakness is that Edwina’s wealth, ambition and activities make her character seem more like a James Bond villain than a realistic person in a plausible real-world scenario. The story has a strange air of science fiction about it and seems to vacillate between fantasy and a novel set in a recognizable venue that explores familiar moral and social issues. All in all, The Philosopher’s Apprentice defies classification as literature of a particular fiction genre. It is not quite science fiction, it is not quite fantasy, it is not quite a romance novel – it is all of these things and more. It is also a stimulating, thought-provoking book that is worth reading if one enjoys fiction that rises far above the pulp level.

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