Five or six years ago when I was visiting colleges, I picked up The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Now, having graduated from college, I finally got around to reading it. I’m not sure if having just gone through my own senior year put me in the right mindset for reading this novel.
Narrated by a Princeton senior, Tom, The Rule of Four follows the events of the three-day Easter weekend he and his roommates manage to survive in 1999 (well, for the most part). Only Tom’s best friend Paul is still working on completing his thesis. Having worked on it for four years, Paul is very close to finally decoding the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a Renaissance text that was the focus of Tom’s father’s work before his death. As Paul’s final deadline approaches, there are more sinister forces at work around him and those who have helped him along the way, including Tom.
There are many reflections back to when Tom was helping Paul (and Tom’s own self-destructive obsession with the Hypnerotomachia), as well as flashes of Tom’s father’s work with it and even glimpses of the Hypnerotomachia’s author and original circumstances (mostly told to Tom by Paul). Though these flashes make the timeline of the holiday weekend a little fuzzy, they are what ultimately secure the reader’s attention.
I actually found the timelines for the whole novel very hard to buy into. I know that there are a lot of college students that don’t sleep a lot, but these characters took it too far for three days (especially considering all of the action and traveling they do). The novel also makes it appear as though Princeton seniors take no classes whatsoever, that they only have their thesis to worry about (except for about one chapter early on where one of the roommates complains about a final). Luckily, such timelines are one of the areas where suspension of disbelief can be easily achieved and maintained if the plot is strong enough.
The riddles and history of the Hypnerotomachia itself are fascinating. There were moments reading about the work that Paul and company put in to finding and solving them that had me wondering if Caldwell and Thomason might have gone to the trouble of embedding some of their own in The Rule of Four. At least that would have explained why the last thirty pages or so felt so off.
The basis was strong and the characters were compelling. It was moving along so well until they got caught up in trying to make the end too dramatic. I think there was a final image they wanted to leave the reader with and in order to make sure they could end there, they had to force the circumstances of the last thirty pages to go that way. It was ridiculously over complicated and a complete let down. They were trying to leave aspects unresolved and ambiguous, but instead it came out decidedly abrupt, out of character, and sloppy.
A novel trying to be a thriller, The Rule of Four takes an inspiring core subject, the mystery of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and its message, and combines it with the promising setting of college academia, where the pressure is on both students and their professors to publish original ideas. It should have worked better than it did. For most of the novel, it did work with only a few small problems that could easily be overlooked. But when it came down to the wire, it cracked under the pressure and left this reader discontented.