Today I have a little delicacy for you all. Long-time reader NF got in touch with me with a review of Geneva. Prior to the release of the audio book we had already chatted in the comments about how successful Richard was going to be in representing the biotech industry as well as Geneva, the city. Being an industry insider and having worked and lived in Geneva, NF has a particular interest and the knowledge to take a closer look at Geneva. She has finished listening to the audio book and written a review for us.
As regards SPOILERS: NF’s review does not contain any references to the plot or character development. She focusses exclusively on the representation of the industry and the city in the book. Personally, I have not yet finished the audio book (no time…) and can say that I have not felt spoiled by any of her findings. She talks about locations and geography as well as language. No plot or character references, just a couple of general statements on the pacing of the book and on an error that does not give away plot details. But as with all discussions of shows/projects/books, it is up to you where you draw the line. NF’s review follows below the cover image in italics. (Photo illustrations added by me.)
ETA: Unfortunately a couple of paragraphs of NF’s review went missing when I embedded two images into the text. I have just re-inserted them. They are the paragraph before the selfie image and the paragraph after the skiing selfie. Apologies to NF!
I am not used to write reviews. It is not my business and far out of my comfort zone. And I have no clue what the formal parts would be to have in the end a text that would be at least comprehensible and ideally even pleasant to read. Additionally, I am completely aware that concerning the Geneva audiobook I am twice biased. I work in the pharmaceutical industry, and I live and work close to Geneva.
From the start I was excited. When only the title Geneva was given, I was in, it was sure I would buy the product. What a funny coincidence that Richard writes about the place where I live. When it became clearer that it is science related (although I still believed it would be about particle physics at CERN), I became impatient for the release. Imagine my inner turmoil when it became clear that it is set in the Biotech business, my business.
To begin my review, I am completely aware that I must be careful to not spoil the audiobook for anyone. So, on the story I can mainly repeat what I have already seen written by many others: It is a well plotted story, it is thrilling it is gripping. Fast paced. If you like this genre this audiobook is for you. For my taste it was nearly a bit too much. But I felt the same reading Stay close. Old style. In a paper book, at my own pace. So not really a surprise nor an issue for Richard’s debut novel, if I was sometimes overwhelmed. More on the contrary, if I think about Harlan Coben’s comment to the book before the release.
Next, I have to come to the topic which made me doubt about the book before listening. I do it now, then I will be free of the topic for the rest of my text. The Pharma and Biotech industry is often pictured in a very bad light. I spare the reader the long list of films with crazy, ruthless scientists and/or ultra-rich and egomaniac company owners who kill or torture animals,humans or aliens for their scientific, business, or whatever interests. We all know these stories and real life sometimes does not help to correct the image of the field I work in (after two years of the whole world discussing about vaccines, I assume there is nothing more to mention here). So, I really feared that Geneva would turn out to be just the same. And if yes, what would this mean concerning Richard’s opinion and how would I deal with it as pharmacist and regular consumer of his works?
To my surprise the story relieved me from my doubts. The story does not dwell so much on how development of Biotech products is done and what is happening in labs or during clinical testing. There is a short brush on the controversial handling of pricing of medication and the things “that the doctor’s and the pharma industry do not want us to know”. But the way it is done, is ok.
The description of the Schiller Institute focusses more on architecture than on what Biotech really does. Generally speaking, the book gives a quite glamorous picture which partially is most likely true, but of course it does not represent 100 % of the real industry. To avoid any spoilers, I will leave this topic here.
A similar relief came for me with the description of the conference in the Campus Biotech. And especially the building. Richard’s selfie in front of that place really scared me. I have worked in that building for several years. Very happy years. With an emotional and difficult time when we had to leave. Suddenly it was more than clear that the book would not be about CERN, suddenly Geneva was not a funny coincidence anymore. Now it became very personal.
I imagined a character in the book walking into the building. From the reception going up the wide stone stairs under the huge video cube wall to the atrium. The atrium surrounded by glass and steel buildings on three sides, an enormous glass façade closing the remaining side to the south. And everything covered by a glass roof which can be tilted as one piece in summertime to air the place. Going up to the top floor with the glass elevator and then crossing above the atrium on the open galleries with their glass railings. The impressive view from there on the building and the atrium with the trees, which unfortunately some colleagues could not enjoy due to the height and the transparent glass railings. … This would have been strange to listen to for me …
In the book only a rather short part of the story is taking place in the Campus Biotech. And the interior given by Richard does not correspond at all to my memories. Either he had no possibility to see it from the inside. Or reality did not at all fit with his needs for the story, so he just changed it. And both was fine for me as a listener. The story became just a story, fiction with no strings to my own experiences in the place.
This brings me to the question of how much personal experience Richard has brought into his book. And here the story becomes totally relatable. I don’t have to elaborate much on those things that he already talked about in the funny true/false game video. But in some other parts it seems to me that he must have tested his story while being in Geneva.
Whenever someone moves on foot in Geneva the description of street names, turns, buildings etc. is so detailed and accurate that there is only one conclusion for me, he visited the places and walked the paths of his characters. For the car transfers within the town, I am not so sure. I could not mentally follow which ways should have been taken from the airport to the hotel or from Campus Biotech to the hotel. Concerning the transfer from the airport I blame this on a huge construction going on since 2019. The actual state he might have seen when arriving is nothing for the book, and what he wrote sounds a bit like the status we might see if ever these works will be finished. For the moment there is no tunnel from the airport to the city center.
Richard fulfills with his description of Geneva and Switzerland all the known clichés and expectations. There is of course a lot of snow (even in town where this rarely happens), champagne, cheese, chocolate and luxury in the story. And this is ok, he draws images that complement the story. And let’s be fair this is entertainment not a documentary. When we watch 007 driving through Monaco, we are aware that it is fiction. And as Monaco is more than just shiny casinos, there is also a quite ordinary side to Geneva and of course not every sink is made of marble here.
A little downside of Geneva is for me that I do not like Richard speaking French. I am not a native speaker in French, but still Richard’s French sound strange to me. There are only few short phrases but many names of streets and places, and this is enough to frustrate me. The ts at the end of Les Diablerets is not spoken. And Th in the beginning of Thonons-les-Bains is just like T, not an English th. I would have expected Audible to have someone to ensure that the pronounciation is correct. Maybe when Richard reads the story from Daniel’s point of view, this would represent how Daniel would speak. Still these parts are not a pleasure for my ears. I am aware that the target audience of this version in English are not French native speakers and especially not local people from here. Compared to all the potential listeners in the rest of the world this is a very small population that might complain.
Overall, I believe I would have enjoyed the story much more if it would be set somewhere else. Must not be far, Zurich would do. Then for the rest I could say the story is good, it is well written and well performed. Richard, if I am not totally thrilled, it’s not you, it’s me. I am biased and my expectations were too high.
But then there is a but … And this but comes from one little phrase that Richard wrote on Instagram “… you know how I feel about details”. This and two situations in the book when Daniel quickly pays in Euros. I cannot say why but this little thing is annoying me. And while for other things I can accept that the story needs reality to be bent and my biased overcritical view is spoiling the story for me, it does not work for this point. Richard must be aware that payments in Switzerland are done in Swiss Francs, or more likely just using a card. And why should Daniel coming from London, where Euros are also not in use, have these and not Swiss Francs with him.
To have me interested in the book and to make me buy it, just the title would have been enough. No Tweets with missing letters, no obscure video, no trailer was needed for that.
“… you know how I feel about details.” followed by the announcement of Richard’s journey to Switzerland set the bar very high. The disappointment I feel, although I did not have a bad time listening to Geneva, is not entirely rooted on my side. The high expectations were fueled by this phrase. It feels like a promise that was not kept.
But I think I can forgive it. My worst presentiments luckily also turned out to be unfounded. Would I buy any future novel? I don’t know yet. Will I watch The man from Rome, if it ever comes to cinemas here? Yes, I think I will. So, everything is fine.
Thank you very much to NF for sharing her insider’s view with us here. You are welcome to comment below and share your reactions. It would be great if we could restrict the discussion to the points made in the review, just in order to avoid plot or character spoilers!