My very best friend in the whole world & I bonded over books the first semester of sixth grade. I introduced her to Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and she introduced me to the medical thriller genre — Michael Crichton, Michael Palmer, and of course, Robin Cook (we also read a lot of Lillian Jackson Braun. we were–are–huge dorks). I can still picture the covers of Cook’s books clearly: Vector, Fever, Outbreak, Coma, and our favorite, Mutation (which Cat dropped in the pool so it swelled to three times its size). I loved the science-y medical aspects (we were big into ER, too) and the fun, convoluted plotlines.
I’ve reread some Michael Palmer books in the past few years, as well as a few new releases. And I’ve probably read every Michael Crichton book at least three or four times (the later ones weren’t great, but they weren’t bad either). But I haven’t revisited Robin Cook, nor have I read any of his new work. I downloaded his newest novel (published last year) from the library, and wow — I’m kind of regretting soiling my fond memories of his writing. Has it always been this bad? Or has he somehow lost the touch? I’m not sure I want to know!
So, Host. Set in the Charleston, it focuses on two medical students named Lynn Peirce and Michael Pender. They’re best friends, and when Lynn’s boyfriend mysteriously doesn’t wake up from a routine procedure, Michael helps her find out what’s really going on. They (of course) dig up a huge conspiracy involving the Shapiro Institute, a building attached to the hospital that cares for patients in vegetative states through a very automated process. The more they find out, the more trouble they get in with the shadowy figures behind the Shapiro…and possibly the hospital itself. Mwa ha ha! Oh, and there’s like a lot of bad guy Russians, too.
Okay, so the plot is cheesy. I would be totally fine with that, except that it’s also the damn plot of Coma, which he wrote in the 1970s and I read sometime in the 1990s. At first I thought I was imagining it, but no –Goodreads confirms what I remember of the plot of Coma, plus I’m not the only person who mentioned it on the Goodreads board. So, strike one, Mr. Cook.
Then there was issue number two. So, Robin Cook is an old (late 70s) white man. He looks like a nerdy James Cromwell–seriously: He created two main characters in this book — a young white woman, and a young black man. Good for him! Diversity in novels! But — oh my god, this poor black man (Michael). Cook makes him such a stereotype, but THEN! spends every other page pointing out that Michael is NOT stereotype for various reasons. He calls Lynn “sista”, but does it ironically. He was raised in the ‘hood (yes, he writes that many, many times), but he speedreads and goes to medical school! He bonds with another guy over Jay-Z and his Beats by Dre headphones — but he’s really interested in the guy’s work with computers. At one point in the narration, Michael goes to his closet for new “kicks and threads”. Cook is trying so, so hard to be cool and he just completely fails. It’s very Steve Buschemi in 30 Rock. It made me sad. Strike two.
The writing was goofy, some of it seemed kind of dumbed down (by which I mean, the main characters seemed to intentionally not understand things that Cook wanted to explain to his audience. like, his 4th year med student doesn’t know about nosocomial infections). At one point, Michael references that Lone Ranger joke about, “what do you mean ‘us’, white man?” which was funny and used in context (weirdly, Neal Stephenson used it in the last audiobook I listened to — I’ve literally never heard that joke otherwise). But then he & Lynn reference it TWO MORE TIMES and both times, Cook reminds us what the joke was. It came across weirdly, like he was being condescending.
I will always have fond memories of reading Robin Cook, floating around on a pool mat and watching Cat try to kill a bee with her copy of Mutation. But I think I’ll leave well enough alone, and not try to revisit this author anytime soon.
Oh, and someone shoots the cat. Strike three!