For anyone who thinks they know what picking up a Hugh Howey book will mean, The Shell Collector is the novel that will prove you wrong. There are small elements of similarity with his best-selling and acclaimed Wool series but disappointingly not enough.
The setting for the story is a dystopian future in which the world’s sea levels have risen dramatically and levees have been built around New York, Boston and Florida (just to name a few) to keep the destructive flooding out. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The damage that has been done to the oceans means many species are now extinct and shell collecting and trading is a multi-million dollar pastime.
It’s a little strange, given all that, when The Shell Collector reveals itself to actually be a romance. The main character is Maya, a former scientist and science reporter and now an investigative journalist who has spent the past two years compiling a series of four articles about the Wilde family, four generations of which have been devoted to compiling wealth at the expense of the environment by drilling for oil on land and at sea.
When the first of Maya’s articles is published about the great-grandfather, she is contacted by Ness, the great-grandson and current CEO of the Wilde family’s operations, who offers to be interviewed. Maya is then contacted by the FBI, who want her to wear a wire during the interview in order to find out what Ness knows about fake shells that are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.
Ness is a notorious recluse and Maya travels to his coastal compound to meet him, where she is immediately attracted to him but fights an internal battle with herself to remain professional and not ravish him without a reasonable interval to maintain her “good girl” status. Ness tells her that everything she knows about him and his family is wrong and that if she gives him a week, he will take her on a journey that proves he’s actually a good guy.
So Maya and Ness go shell collecting, scuba diving, deep-sea diving and to his private island. By this point, Maya hasn’t been given any evidence of Ness being a good guy but she’s so infatuated it almost doesn’t matter anymore. When she eventually finds out what’s been going on, she slashes Ness on the face with a shell and tries to run away but he romantically chases her down a beach (with blood running down his cheek and neck) where they wrestle, then reconcile. (Ah, domestic violence – apparently that’s what’s been lacking from romance fiction all this time.)
The problem with this book is that it can’t decide if it wants to be dystopian fiction or romance fiction, so it tries to be both but it fails at both. The genre confusion is compounded by a story that isn’t interesting or original. Rich, reclusive, misunderstood, gorgeous man meets career-driven woman with a past that has hardened her – he pursues her relentlessly and she half-heartedly resists but eventually, inevitably they end up sleeping together. There’s a daughter from a previous marriage and an interfering ex-wife and it’s all been done before.
In the acknowledgements, Howey apologises for his Y chromosome but the fact that he’s a man isn’t an excuse for being bad at writing romance. Nicholas Sparks certainly doesn’t have any difficulties.
While I have no problem with writers attempting different genres, I still have an expectation that anything they publish will be worthy. I’m a little sorry to say The Shell Collector isn’t worthy and detracts from the reputation Howey deservedly earned from his earlier books.
*First published on Goodreads 10 August 2015