She used to work for the government as an expert in developing drugs for "enhanced interrogation." At first, she was only creating the chemical compounds, but soon she found herself actually conducting the interrogations. Somewhere along the line, she learned too much about something that could ruin the career of someone important, and now she's on the run, hunted by the very people who used to employ her. For the last two years, she's rarely used the same name or stayed in one place for long, always keeping on the move and watching her back, trying to stay just one step ahead. It's an exhausting life that's left her emotionally and physically drained. When her former handler contacts her, offering to lift the kill order on her if she conducts one more interrogation for them, she isn't sure whether she can trust him, but it's a offer that's almost too good to pass up.
Daniel Beach, the man they want her to question is a schoolteacher who for all intents and purposes seems like a normal, everyday guy, but her former employer claims he's working with an international criminal to release a biological agent throughout several large U.S. cities that could lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. The evidence against him seems compelling, but as she soon learns, there's more to the situation than meets the eye. Before long, she realizes that Daniel's life has been upended for no good reason, but now that the damage has been done, they both must keep running. She's always been a loner, responsible only for her own life and no one else's, but the stakes are now higher than ever. In normal circumstances, Daniel is exactly the type of guy she could give her heart to, but with both their lives on the line, romance isn't an easy thing to entertain. Any distraction from their main objective of figuring out the truth could get them both killed.
The Chemist is Stephenie Meyer's latest book, and it's pretty different from anything she's written before. Gone are the paranormal and sci-fi elements of Twilight and The Host. Instead this is a standard contemporary suspense/thriller with just enough romance for me to be comfortable calling it a romantic suspense. In this story, we have a woman who used to work for the government but has been living on the run for the past three years. The people she used to work for are now trying to kill her because of something she knows, but she isn't sure what that something is. Enter her old handler who says that they'll leave her alone if she does just one more job for them. It entails kidnapping and interrogating a man who seems like an ordinary all-American guy, but who her government contact claims to be involved in an impending biological weapons attack on several major US cities. When she takes on the job, she learns some very unexpected things, not the least of which is that she's been duped. Of course, with that being the case, the governmental forces are still after her, so she, her suspect, and a third man end up on the run yet again, while trying to figure out a way to get the upper hand and stay alive.
After running for so long, the heroine and main narrator of the story has a number of different aliases. Her real name in her old life was Juliana, but since there's a death certificate for that name, she feels like she's not that person anymore. The name by which she goes for most of this book is Alex. Alex is a smart, independent woman who was recruited to work for a secret government agency. Initially her job entailed the creation of special chemical compounds and drugs that were used to interrogate suspected terrorists or persons of interest. Eventually, because they needed someone with knowledge of how these compounds affected the human body and how much to administer, she ended up becoming the interrogator herself. Alex was one of the most well-respected experts in her field, second only to her former mentor, until one day her mentor started becoming paranoid and schooling her in what to do if the worst happened. Then her mentor died in a "lab accident," and Alex only narrowly escaped being in the room, too. That's when she realized her employer was out to get her and went on the run. She's been living in isolation ever since. When her old handler comes with his offer and she kidnaps the man they want interrogated, her whole life begins to change.
Readers who didn't care for Bella from the Twilight series and felt that she was too much of a doormat, should like Alex. She's an intelligent, capable, self-sufficient woman who has managed to keep herself alive under extremely stressful circumstances. In fact, she's initially the strong one in the romantic relationship that develops. She's willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and at times, she's practically dispassionate about it. When the romance begins, she almost doesn't know what to do. It's like a foreign concept to her. At first, I thought she was perhaps a touch autistic, but it also might have been her lack of relationship experience coupled with living alone for so long. In any case, she eventually warms up to the idea, but in general, Alex is definitely a more cerebral female character than what we've seen from Ms. Meyer in the past.
The first hero of the story is Daniel. He's just an ordinary guy, a school teacher, volleyball coach and divorcée. He feels an instant connection to Alex when they meet on the train, a meeting which, unfortunately, was engineered by Alex for the purpose of kidnapping him. Once she has him in her grasp, she begins using her chemicals to torture him for information about the impending attack. I can't say too much about Daniel without giving some things away, but I will say that I liked him from the very start. He's an affable and easy-going guy, most definitely a beta hero, which I loved. He has a sweetness to him that almost immediately made me question his culpability. But he can have a bit of an edge when he needs to, bravely stepping up, when the situation calls for it.
The second hero of the story is Kevin. I won't say who is he is, but I will say that I almost immediately figured out his identity when he arrived on the scene. An ex-CIA agent who's also on the run, he's definitely the alpha to Daniel's beta. At first, he and Alex are like oil and water, and he can also annoy the crap out of Daniel sometimes, too. Kevin is certainly the abrasive loud-mouth type, but at the same time, he kind of adds some fun to the story. It would have been easy to dislike someone like Kevin, but in Stephenie Meyer's capable hands, I actually didn't. He's a brave patriot who has served his country well, only to have the powers-that-be reward him with a death sentence. Now he's fighting for his life every bit as much as Alex is. Kevin has been living in hiding, training dogs, and his love for his canines softened the hard edges of his character a bit. I'd also be remiss if I didn't say how much I loved Einstein, Kevin's main canine companion, a genius of a dog, who definitely deserved his name.
Overall, I enjoyed The Chemist, but not quite as much as Twilight or The Host. I gave it four stars, mainly because I often found my mind wandering. I felt like the story was a little slow moving in places for a suspense/thriller and maybe some of the details could have been shaved off to speed things up a bit. Also I was having a little trouble following the background mystery on why the government wanted Alex and Kevin dead. A large part of the story is spent with the characters on the run, and I think maybe too much time passed in between the tidbits of the mystery unfolding for it to solidly coalesce in my mind. I more or less understood it in the end, but I think perhaps it could have been a little more cohesive. I also had somewhat mixed feelings about the torture aspects of the story. Although I realize that Alex didn't necessarily enjoy that part of her job, I'm not a fan of torture in any capacity, but it wasn't necessarily a deal-breaker for me either. The romance is a little more subdued than what I'm used to in a romantic suspense, but there's admittedly some decent sexual tension. I don't really have any complaints about the characters, though. I liked both them and the story, so The Chemist was still a good read, even though it didn't quite live up to Ms. Meyer's previous offerings for me.
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