three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-The Girl With the Dragon TattooThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which has sold millions of copies and occupied bestseller lists across Europe, is the surprising debut novel by Stockholm magazine editor Stieg Larsson. He delivered it, along with the rest of the trilogy, to his publisher just before he died of a heart attack in 2004, at age 50.

The Story: On his 82nd birthday, wealthy Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger receives a pressed flower in a picture frame without a note or any other identification—the same gift his beloved niece Harriet once gave to him as a child. He has received the same mysterious birthday gift every year since Harriet vanished from the family island in 1966. Convinced that he has little time left, Vanger resolves to know her fate and persuades down-and-out investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist to uncover it. Blomkvist hires anti-social hacker Lisbeth Salander—the girl with the dragon tattoo, among others—to assist him. When their combined efforts unearth long-hidden secrets, the unlikely pair find themselves in grave danger.
Knopf. 480 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307269752

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has been a huge bestseller in Europe and will be one here if readers are looking for an intelligent, ingeniously plotted, utterly engrossing thriller that is variously a serial-killer saga, a search for a missing person and an informed glimpse into the worlds of journalism and business. … The story starts off at a leisurely pace, but the reader soon surrenders to Larsson’s skillful narrative." Patrick Anderson

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a big, intricately plotted, darkly humorous work, rich with ironies, quirky but believable characters and a literary playfulness that only a master of the genre and its history could bring off. … Because there are many characters and the situation is complex, the narrative begins slowly, but Larsson keeps it interesting as the action accelerates to its strange and disturbing conclusion." Michael Helfand

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Larsson leans heavily on exposition and that old standby: back-filling conversation. Still, he elicits a nice arc in us of growing dread, out-and-out worry, then exhilaration." Karen Long

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Following the myriad foreign words, names and places (‘She took the tunnelbana from Zinkensdamm to Ostermalmstorg and walked down towards Strandvagen,’ reads one typical passage) is challenging. … As fine, complex and rewarding a novel as this may be, my main quibble is that Salander, who is secondary to Blomkvist, really should be the focus, since she is by far the most interesting and distinct of the characters." Edward Nawotka

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"I was excited to tuck into [this] Nordic novel and was surprisingly disappointed by the first few chapters: They are dense with character and plot development, financial reporting mixed with umlaut-heavy names of people and places I didn’t know. … The mystery unfolds, and the book takes off, in the fourth chapter: From there, it becomes classic parlor crime fiction with many modern twists." Marjorie Miller

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The novel perks up as their investigation gains speed, though readers will need some time to sort through the various cousins and nephews and half-brothers and -sisters who populate the Vanger family. … But if the middle section of Girl is a treat, the rest of the novel doesn’t quite measure up." Alex Berenson

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"It’s Mr. Larsson’s two protagonists—Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter filling the role of detective, and his sidekick, Lisbeth Salander, a k a the girl with the dragon tattoo—who make this novel more than your run-of-the-mill mystery: they’re both compelling, conflicted, complicated people, idiosyncratic in the extreme, and interesting enough to compensate for the plot mechanics, which seize up as the book nears its unsatisfying conclusion. … She and Blomkvist make a very odd pair indeed—picture Angelina Jolie teamed up with a young Robert Redford—but their peculiar chemistry is what fuels this novel, particularly as Mr. Larsson loses control of his messy, increasingly implausible plot." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Critics’ responses varied to the late Stieg Larsson’s debut novel. Although some considered it clever, suspenseful, and exhilarating, others found it confused and farfetched. Most fell somewhere in the middle, acknowledging its flaws (including a slow beginning, a glut of suspects, and an overabundance of hard-to-pronounce Swedish phrases and names) while praising its strong, memorable characters, dark humor, and inventive plot twists. Originally titled Men Who Hate Women, Girl is as much a cultural and social assessment of misogyny—a favorite topic of Larsson’s—as it is an intriguing take on the classic thriller. This is one for neo-noir fans—but it doesn’t seem destined to rule this side of the Atlantic.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Who do you consider the novel's protagonist, Lisbeth or Mikael? Why?

2. What point was Larsson trying to make with the themes running through this novel? How do issues such as violence against women, journalistic integrity, and more general notions of trust tie in with each other throughout the book?

3. What function do the sex-crime statistics on each section's title page serve?

4. Reread the passage from Mikael's book on page 103. What is its significance in terms of the plot?

5. On page 156, Henrik tells Mikael, "If there's one thing I've learned, it's never engage in a fight you're sure to lose. On the other hand, never let anyone who has insulted you get away with it. Bide your time and strike back when you're in a position of strength—even if you no longer need to strike back." Over the course of the novel, who puts this advice to the best use? How, and why?

6. How does the involvement of several Vanger brothers with Swedish fascist groups cloud Mikael's investigation into Harriet's disappearance? What role does Harald play?

7. Why does Henrik become an investor in Millennium? Does his plan succeed?

8. Discuss the character of Lisbeth. Some think she is a "perfect victim" (p. 409), others find her intimidating, and Mikael wonders if she has Asperger's, but the reader is allowed to see exactly how her mind works. How do you see her? How do you think she sees herself?

9. What do you think about the way Lisbeth turns the tables on Bjurman? Is it admirable, or a sign that she's unstable?

10. On page 254, Lisbeth says her new tattoo is "a reminder." Of what?

11. Several times in the novel, Mikael's journalistic ethics are challenged. Do you consider him to be ethical? In your opinion, is anyone in the novel truly honorable? If so, why?

12. After reserving judgment for most of his investigation, Mikael determines that Harriet was, in fact, murdered and that he's hunting for a killer. What prompts this decision? How does this affect the rest of his investigation?

13. Discuss the role of parents in the novel. Who is a good parent, and why? How might Harriet's story have changed if her mother had behaved differently? What about Lisbeth's? Is Mikael a good father?

14. Blackmail is used several times in the novel, for different ends. Who uses it most effectively, and why?

15. On page 507, Mikael tells Lisbeth that to him, friendship requires mutual respect and trust. By those standards, who in this novel is a good friend? Is Mikael? What about Anita?

16. Discuss Henrik's request that Mikael never publish the Vanger story. Is it a reasonable request? Does Mikael's acquiescence change your opinion of him? Do Lisbeth's demands mitigate his ethical breach?

17. What ultimately drives Lisbeth to take action against Wennerström on her own? Does she go too far?

18. Reread Mikael's statement about the media's responsibility at the top of page 575. Can you think of a situation in the American media that is analogous to the Wennerström affair?

19. Discuss the ending. Was it satisfying to you? Why or why not?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.