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Book Review: In the Hand of Dante by Nick Tosches (1/5)

14 Jul

I’ve been fascinated by Dante since I had to read Inferno in high school. It’s an interesting concept and very influential. Many things are still being translated and discovered about this man so it’s no wonder he keeps appearing in popular literature. I’ve enjoyed other books I’d read about Dante so I decided to give this one a try. I found it in a bookshop the last time I was on vacation and decided to give it a try.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

In the Hand of Dante by Nick Tosches

Summary from Goodreads:

Deep inside the Vatican library, a priest discovers the rarest and most valuable art object ever found: the manuscript of “The Divine Comedy,” written in Dante’s own hand. Via Sicily, the manuscript makes its way from the priest to a mob boss in New York City, where a writer named Nick Tosches is called to authenticate the prize. For this writer, the temptation is too great: he steals the manuscript in a last-chance bid to have it all. Some will find it offensive; others will declare it transcendent; it is certain to be the most ragingly debated novel of the decade.

From visiting Dante's house in 2010.

From visiting Dante’s house in 2010.

Ugh. The summary of this book and its execution were, to me, vastly different. The summary sounds exciting and like it will focus on the authentication of the manuscript and what follows from there. What it fails to convey is that the story jumps between Nick and the other modern characters and Dante and his contemporaries, jumping almost 700 years backward and forward in time. The scenes set in modern times read faster (except for a certain diatribe which I’ll get to) and to me, were much more interesting. The ones set in te 1300s were written in very clunky and what expect to be ‘more period-appropriate’ phrases. They were almost impossible to read and it made me put the book down in frustration more than once. These always seemed to be longer than the modern chapters they paralleled which made them all the more unbearable. The chapters at the beginning of the book were long, 40+ pages or so, and toward the end, most were 4 pages or less. This is an interesting choice but I felt the author went out of his way to make the earlier paragraphs long. There was a modern tirade about the publishing industry and how Tosches was a modern genius who wasn’t appreciated and another about the root of the name for Jesus. I wanted to pull my hair out and that’s not how I want to feel at the beginning of a book.

Tosches made the interesting choice of putting himself in the lead role of the book. In some ways, I think the main character really was him, but at the same time, I’d hope he’s not an accomplice in murder and secretly hiding in Italy with a wife and the pages of the original Dante manuscript. It was hard to pick out fact from fiction but I got the feeling Nick the author and Nick the character shared a lot of personality similarities. If that’s true, I never want to meet Tosches. He’s cocky, arrogant, and while he has some honest inner-demons that he struggles with, he’s a bit messed up and unstable.

The bits narrated by Gemma in the 1300s were the only ones I could bare. Dante was hard to read because he was so flowery, but Gemma was a bit less cultured and thus easier to read and understand. I really appreciated that.

I found all the characters in this book to be so removed from myself that I couldn’t like any of them. I just wanted it to be over and for them all to face the ends they deserved, though that didn’t happen to many of them.

Image via The Globe and Mail

Image via The Globe and Mail

For me, the only enjoyable part was Nick outrunning mob. I kind of wanted them to catch him, but it was at least interesting. I liked the authentication of the manuscript as well and how many ways he went about having it verified. That was well researched and well written.

The first 120 pages were unbearable. The long tirades and minimal action that ended up not being relevant to the plot were killers for me and there were many times I almost gave up on this book. He talks about how good writers don’t need editors, but I think this one does!


Nick and Dante are both desperate men and the book explores what a desperate man will do. Dante, after the death of Beatrice, is lost and searching for higher meaning, desperate to escape his status on earth. Nick is looking for some action in his repetitive and suffocating life and what he finds is almost deadly. Sometimes, when we get what we want, we find out it’s not what we really wanted in the first place, but now you have to live with it because you’re stuck.

Writer’s Takeaway: I promise to never think I’m above being edited. I can always have a fault in my writing and I can always benefit from others telling me to reconsider a scene, chapter, or character. I will make cuts, I will rework scenes. I will not include long diatribes about my past successes and how that demonstrates that I’m above the criticism of others. In other words, I’ll never be as full of myself as Nick Tosches is full of himself. Or at least, as much as he seems to be.

This book was a struggle to get through and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. 1 out of 5 Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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I honestly could find none with the way I always search. It seems you all knew better than me to read this book. Kudos.