Book Review: The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan
In The Curiosity, scientific exploration bumps up against the culture of celebrity and the perils of popularity. Through the voices of a dedicated scientist, a muckraking journalist, and an egomaniacal millionaire, we chart the rise and fall of Jeremiah Rice, a man who’s either a miracle or an abomination, depending on whose perspective you believe.
Kate Philo is the lead-off narrator, and the person who generates the most sympathy. Kate is a cell biologist, a 30-something researcher acknowledged as a genius in her field, who leads a team of Arctic explorers pursuing “hard-ice” on a project funded by the Carthage Institute for Cellular Seeking. Headed by the obsessive-compulsive but brilliant Erastus Carthage, the goal of the Institute is to locate organisms flash-frozen in icebergs and reanimate them. Up to now, the work has focused on krill and other tiny creatures. But one fateful day, Kate and her crew discover something large in a massive berg. Is it a whale? A seal? Nope. It’s the frozen body of a man, stuck in the ice for at least one hundred years.
Back in their Boston lab, the ice man is the center of a media frenzy. The whole world is watching as the team prepares the risky and arduous process of reanimation. Lo and behold, it works: The ice man’s heart begins to beat, he draws breath, and — after an excruciating wait — he opens his eyes and speaks.
The man is Jeremiah Rice, a judge from the early 1900s who disappeared during an Arctic voyage, leaving behind a beloved wife and daughter. Judge Rice is the hottest commodity around, immediately the focus of every story-hungry reporter, the source of endless speculation and online gossip, and debateably the property of Carthage’s Lazarus Project. Kept in a secure room and monitored 24/7, is Judge Rice a person or a laboratory subject? Or, as the growing mass of protestors would have it, is he an abomination, a perversion of God’s will, an affront to people of belief?
Kate, meanwhile, introduces Jeremiah to the 21st century, leading him on outings through the streets of Boston, introducing him to the people and the city of this new era, so different from the world he left behind. And as they venture out, Jeremiah begins to share the story of his life… and he and Kate form a bond that moves beyond science into the untested waters of human emotions.
We know from the outset, however, that this is not a story with a happy ending. Kate warns us in her very first chapter that public sentiment changed dramatically, that she and the project were skewered in the court of public opinion, and that she’s left with nothing but her memories. We know too from an early demonstration of the reanimation process that the reanimated krill go through a lifecycle that’s predictable and doomed to an unavoidable demise. When things start to go badly for Jeremiah, it’s not a surprise, but by then, we’ve come to know him. Jeremiah is a good, decent man — and knowing that, the inevitable end becomes tragic.
There’s much to love about The Curiosity. The book raises some interesting questions: What constitutes a human life? When does science become exploitation? How has 24/7 internet coverage changed the meaning of truth? In this age of constant access, who is responsible for damage to an individual’s life or reputation? And with the hounding of paparazzi and “gotcha” news, can even a truly good person escape the muck?
The scientific processes and discoveries in The Curiosity are fascinating. We’ve seen goofy versions of the “man frozen in ice” concept in movies and TV shows before, but here, the dilemmas involved for the scientists and for the subject himself are taken seriously. In the early chapters, the reader can practically feel the freezing Arctic seas as the diving crews prepare to salvage the unknown object in the iceberg. There’s tension, and drama, and excitement.
Later on, the focus begins to feel a bit scattered, and I’d have preferred to spend a little less time on the protesters and on Erastus Carthage’s point of view.
Overall, however, the narrative moves quickly, and the shifting perspective helps the reader get a clearer picture of the events and people closing in on Jeremiah Rice. As despicable as some of the point-of-view characters are, hearing the story through their words lets us see just how steep the odds are, and just how far people are willing to go to come out on top.
I wasn’t entirely convinced by the romantic elements of the story, which I felt needed more room to breathe and grow. Still, the friendship, trust, and growing feelings between Kate and Jeremiah are moving to witness, if perhaps a bit overly condensed. Kate and Jeremiah are both decent, honest people caught up in events that they can’t control. Jeremiah, especially, is a lovely, tragic figure, full of pathos and yearning for a world forever lost to him, only just starting to adapt to the 21st century when that too slips away.
I recommend The Curiosity both as a tale of scientific exploration and as a study of compelling characters caught up in events they can’t control. Exciting and moving, The Curiosity will hold your attention from start to finish.
About the Author:
He was born in Newtonville, NY the sixth of seven children. A graduate of Middlebury College, he received a Master of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Over two-plus decades as a journalist he has won 40 awards, including the Brechner Institute’s Freedom of Information Award, the Gerald Loeb Award for financial journalism (two time commentary finalist) and the George Polk Award.
He has taught at Middlebury College and the New England Young Writers Conference, and has worked on the staff of the Breadloaf School of English and the Breadloaf Writers Conference. He chairs the board of the Young Writers Project, served on the Vermont Legislative Committee on Pain and Palliative Care, and joined the advisory board of the New Hampshire Palliative Care Initiative.
Stephen travels the country speaking to a wide variety of audiences about improving life’s last chapters, restoring America through volunteerism and philanthropy, and using the power of creativity to transform lives.
A performer on the guitar since he was ten years old, Stephen has recorded 3 CDs of solo instrumentals, and composed music for dance, the stage, documentaries and TV specials.
He lives in Vermont with his two amazing sons.
Title: The Curiosity
Author: Stephen P. Kiernan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2013 (hardcover); paperback release July 1, 2014
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours