On paper, Justin Cronin has no business writing a summer best-seller such as The Passage (Ballantine Books, $27). Summer books, like summer movies, are mostly predictable affairs. Readers expect twice the plot and half the logic, and everyone is so crazy from the heat that nobody bothers to ask questions.
Cronin—whose previous books include Mary and O’Neil (Dial Press, 2002), a novel of interconnected short stories that won a PEN/Hemingway award, and The Summer Guest (Dial Press, 2004), which was well-reviewed but mostly ignored by book buyers—is simply too literary to be associated with a blockbuster. Summer books are supposed to be entertaining but disposable, made to fade faster than summer tans. Cronin, a Harvard graduate who polished his writing skills at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, never got the memo.
Of course, Cronin’s pedigree is exactly what makes The Passage so refreshingly different. Here’s what you need to know: It’s a vampire novel, yes, but extremely well-written and highly detailed, with references to Shakespeare, poet Louise Gluck and Katherine Anne Porter. The first 250 pages are fascinating, full of rich characters and plot complications, and the last 300 pages are action-packed and wholly engrossing. The Passage sags a little in the middle, but—in Cronin’s defense—it takes time to adequately describe a post-apocalyptic environment almost a hundred years after an experimental drug administered to violent prisoners resulted in a virus that turns victims into vampires (known as “virals”) and wipes out the world as we know it.
There’s a good story in The Passage, but there’s a good story behind it, too. In the fall of 2005, Cronin’s 8-year-old daughter suggested he write a book about a girl who saves the world. The basic story evolved over a three-month period, while Cronin jogged and Iris biked around their neighborhood. What emerged was the story of a special little girl who is abandoned by her mother, abducted by the government and who carries the future of the world in her bloodstream. Cronin is aware his vampire novel might draw comparisons to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, but claims his real influences date back to ’60s soap opera Dark Shadows and actor Bela Lugosi.
The Passage was the subject of an intense bidding war among publishers, and Ballantine Books (a division of Random House) eventually paid $3.75 million for the rights. It looks like that gamble will pay off; The Passage sold out its initial print run (250,000 copies) and seems destined for multiple reprints. Cronin is already working on the second installment of his projected trilogy, with the other books due in 2012 and 2014. Even director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) is anxious to sink his teeth into The Passage. His production company paid $1.75 million for the film rights, and—in a nod to Cronin’s intricate plotting—will likely adapt The Passage into two movies.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether The Passage is actually a literary novel in best-seller’s clothing. All that matters is that the story works, and Cronin, in trying to satisfy an audience of one, ended up writing a story that will ultimately captivate millions. ★★★★★
Because reading is more sexy in a swimsuit, Bookini is the name of our summer reading series.