Review: A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

The new novel from the beloved New York Times bestselling author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Heart's Invisible Furies , a seductive Highsmithian psychodrama following one brilliant, ruthless man who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of fame.

Maurice Swift is handsome, charming, and hungry for success. The one thing he doesn't have is talent - but he's not about to let a detail like that stand in his way. After all, a would-be writer can find stories anywhere. They don't need to be his own. Working as a waiter in a West Berlin hotel in 1988, Maurice engineers the perfect opportunity: a chance encounter with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann. He quickly ingratiates himself with the powerful - but desperately lonely - older man, teasing out of Erich a terrible, long-held secret about his activities during the war. Perfect material for Maurice's first novel.

Once Maurice has had a taste of literary fame, he knows he can stop at nothing in pursuit of that high. Moving from the Amalfi Coast, where he matches wits with Gore Vidal, to Manhattan and London, Maurice hones his talent for deceit and manipulation, preying on the talented and vulnerable in his cold-blooded climb to the top. But the higher he climbs, the further he has to fall...

A Ladder to the Sky is my maiden voyage with this author and I devoured it with gusto. I think it was a good place for me, specifically, to start because Maurice Swift is a sociopath. There are no "good" mental illnesses but there are ones far more interesting than others to me. Maurice is many things-amoral, narcissistic, brutally ambitious-but he's not boring. My first reaction to him as a twenty year old ingratiating himself to the aged, lonely and slightly pitiful Erich Ackermann was, 'oh, you're a nasty one, aren't you?'.

He is. He has no redeeming qualities. To be a famous author and a father are the only two things he's ever wanted. Both of which he lacks the necessary skills to attain success either for lack of creativity or lack of empathy. One would think that in and of itself would be some sort of poetic justice but is there such a thing as justice when it comes to a sociopath?

For me, that's what the book came to be about rather than his relentless climb toward fame and fortune at any cost, and in that regard, Boyne really distinguished himself by staying true to the characterization rather than serving up some sort of insipid claptrap.

Maurice is diabolical and lives his life inveigling ideas from others for his own personal gain without remorse. He has several weapons in his arsenal. The most powerful of which are his considerable good looks, sex or the withholding of it, his affection, his time, his money, his business nothing is off-limits. They're all just a means to an end, people are disposable to him and this is his story told in three parts, covering most of his lifespan and how he increasingly contravenes morality to get what he wants.

The first part is told from Ackermann and Gore Vidal's perspectives. There aren't enough superlatives to describe how much I loved this part. Ackermann is a sympathetic character who did a terrible thing but his motivation for doing so is what separates him from Maurice.

Gore Vidal, though, is having none of Maurice Swift and it was fantastic! A long time ago I bought a copy of "Vanity Fair". I'm sure there was some celebrity on the cover that I just had to know all the things about but what I wound up discovering was Dominick Dunne. Immediately charmed by him and his particular brand of storytelling, I found myself signing up for a subscription. Every month I couldn't wait to see what stories Dominick would tell me. He knew EVERYONE and everyone knew him; he was a urbane and people gravitated toward him, myself included. Gore reminded me of Dominick and I found myself feeling bereft that I'd missed out on the Gore Vidal experience. This is not a humorous book but some of what came out of his mouth not to mention his thoughts had me snorting.

The second part is told from Maurice's wife, Edith's perspective. This was the weakest section of the book to me and not for the obvious reasons. It encompasses her work as a newly successful author and professor which made sense since it's her story too but it also involved her family. She has a pathological sister, Rebecca, who is embroiled in a divorce/custody battle that took a significant amount of page time and I couldn't make heads or tails of why it was necessary to the narrative. To illustrate how sociopaths come in all shapes, sizes and genders? True, but not crucial to the story, in my opinion. I liked Edith and her voice but the family drama I could've done without.

The third part we delve into the mind of the sociopath. Entertaining, thy name is Maurice Swift. Truthfully, I could probably write a short story about Maurice but I'll refrain and just say he's ruthless, contemptible and obnoxious, but also cunning and charismatic when he chooses to be, thus is the nature of the sociopath. If I said I wasn't absorbed by him, it would be a lie.

Each section was given its own tone and voice which is what I was most dazzled by. Even the writing style changes to fit each person. If that's not embodying a character, I've no idea what is. I did notice the words 'crestfallen' and 'daresay' often but maybe these are mainstays of the literary types? A minor quibble in an otherwise outstanding and infinitely readable story. Flow is certainly in Boyne's wheelhouse and I would recommend A Ladder to the Sky to those who can appreciate an unsympathetic protagonist.

Also, to whomever came up with this tongue in cheek cover, you're a genius.

A copy was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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