Just over a decade ago, Stephenie Meyer published “Twilight ,” the first of her books about a teenager who falls in love with a vampire. Insanely popular — the Twilight series has sold more than 155 million copies worldwide — Meyer’s books spawned a cottage industry. In addition to the blockbuster science fiction novel “The Host,” there were also the movies based on the books, and an enormous fan following that turned this onetime receptionist into one of the most popular authors in the world.
Meyer’s new novel, “The Chemist,” has no vampires or aliens or anything supernatural to steal your soul while you’re reading. (I waited, my neck bared.) But this espionage action story will no doubt tighten her grip on her devoted readers. Its main character is much like Jason Bourne, to whom the novel is dedicated affectionately. More accurately, it is a romance novel cleverly nesting inside a thriller. And what a strange romance it is.
The tale opens with an extended scene describing in great detail the precautions taken by the titular chemist. Wrung out from a long day of stealing books from a distant library, the chemist sets booby traps, arranges a fake body — complete with stage blood — in a bed, and goes off to sleep in the bathtub wearing a gas mask for protection. Yes, it seems that someone is out to get her. For the past three years, she has been on the run from a top-secret U.S. government agency determined to kill her.
Trained by that same nameless department, she has become an interrogator who uses her psychological tactics and biochemistry skills to extract confessions from terrorists and other bad guys. The department killed her kindly old lab partner and nearly eliminated her, so she is paranoid and overcautious, assuming multiple identities and disguises — all of which are described in gleeful, almost fetishistic, detail.
Given the chance to come in from the cold, Alex (not her real name) agrees to a department plan to apprehend a seemingly innocuous high school teacher who they claim is part of an intricate plot to release a deadly virus. They meet cute on D.C. Metro’s Green Line, and she drugs him and whisks him off to a makeshift lab in West Virginia where she strips him, straps him down to a table and begins to torture him with carefully calibrated injections.
Saved by an ex-CIA black-ops renegade in Kevlar armor, the teacher falls in love with the torturer. Not all at once, mind you, but he quickly forgives her once she explains the reasons behind her sadistic behavior. Smitten, I guess. Together with the commando and his superbly trained dog, Alex and the teacher set in motion a counter-plan to get the bad guys.
The plot zips from Texas to Florida and back to D.C. and features all of the expected motifs of the genre: double switches, innocent mistakes that compound the dangers, the lurid technical capacities of gadgets and weaponry and opiates, the politician gone as rogue as the Manchurian candidate’s mother, and even the obligatory tone of simmering hatred between two members of the team that turns into mutual respect and admiration.
Along the way there are some wonderful touches. The ex-CIA guy specializes in training dogs of all shapes and sizes to the point where they fearlessly obey every command and have memorized complex escape routes from their Texas ranch. I had trouble teaching my dog how to sit, but these canines are often smarter than their human counterparts.
Other matters further challenge credulity. The melodramatic plot depends upon well-worn devices such as a pair of twins whose bodies mirror each other. The writing and bantering dialogue never fully escape a cataclysm of cliches. But one does not read Meyer for her style. Her appeal is emotional rather than aesthetic, and she knows how to control dramatic tension as skillfully as any of the Bourne movies. The pages turn themselves.
And Alex is one stone-cold heroine. “The Chemist” asks that age-old question: Can sadists find true love and happiness? Or, to put it from the teacher’s perspective: Can love — or, at least, infatuation — conquer the deepest pains inflicted by the beloved? The sexual power struggle just below the surface of Meyer’s novels may well be the key to her broad appeal. In the “Twilight” books, the balance was clearly tilted in the vampire’s favor. In “The Chemist,” the roles reverse, and Alex literally calls the shots. Who says the author’s not a feminist?
Meyer’s legion of addicted fans will lap up this chemical romance. As for me, I’m off to the library to detox.
Keith Donohue’s latest novel, “The Motion of Puppets,” was published last month.
By Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown. 528 pp. $28