The Gold Bug Variations
By Richard Powers

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Rating: Brilliant!
4 Stars

First Published: 1991
UK Jacket Illustrated by:  Christopher Brown
Pages: 639

Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre:  Modern Fiction, Literature, Science



The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers is a challenging work of literature that offers large rewards for the effort.  This is first of all, a complex love story, make that love stories, with tremendous emotional depth featuring complex relationships, tragedy, and triumph.  However, The Gold Bug Variations also manages to combine high literary form with substantial forays into microbiology, computer programming, and classical music.  The combination of literature, science, music, and romance makes for a wonderful reading experience. 

The novel begins when a young computer programmer, Frank Todd, requests help from a research librarian, Jan O’Deigh to uncover the mysterious past of his co-worker.  He suspects that his reclusive older co-worker must have been a brilliant scientist until something drove him to seek seclusion.  Working together, Frank and Jan gradually uncover a high stakes academic race to discover the secrets of the human genetic code along with a tragic love story which intersects with their own growing love interest.  Jan is the narrator of most of the novel and her witty responses to the most diverse questions imaginable provide some entertaining side humor. 

The characters and relationships in this novel are fascinating and engaging.  There are plenty of riddles and trivia along with constant verbal sparring.  The many layered mysteries are intriguing and suspenseful.  You might not think a book of this length could maintain a good pace throughout but it does.  It’s actually a page turner that’s hard to put down.  In addition, everything comes together, in unexpected ways, to provide a very satisfying conclusion. 

This novel proves that personal discovery and academic discovery can be just as exciting as all out action.  I can’t recommend The Gold Bug Variations highly enough to anyone who is up for a literary challenge and doesn’t mind a generous helping of science in their fiction.