The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Book Review

Armansky’s star researcher was a pale, anorexic young woman who had hair as short as a fuse, and a pierced nose and eyebrows. She had a wasp tattoo about an inch long on her neck, a tattooed loop around the biceps of her left arm and another around her left ankle. On those occasions when she had been wearing a tank top, Armansky also saw that she had a dragon tattoo on her left shoulder blade. She was a natural redhead, but she dyed her hair raven black. She looks as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers. – from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, page 32 –

Mikael Blomkvist is journalist who finds himself convicted in a libel case and facing the potential demise of his magazine along with a jail sentence. So when Henrik Vanger, an aging businessman, offers Mikael a job to uncover the mystery of  young Harriet Vanger’s disappearance, he decides to take it. Harriet (Henrik’s niece) disappeared in the 1960s, when she was just 16 years old and now (forty years later) no trace of her has ever been uncovered. Henrik Vanger is convinced someone in the Vanger family murdered the young girl, and he wants to know how and who. In an effort to solve the mystery, Mikael begins to research the dysfunctional Vanger family and eventually seeks the help of a research assistant named Lisbeth Salander – an odd, antisocial 24 year old whose primary skill is hacking into seemingly secure computer systems and unearthing information about just about anyone.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has two story lines. The first is the mystery of Harriet Vanger; the second is that of financial intrigue and fraud involving a huge Swedish corporation. Stieg Larsson melds these two plots through the characters of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.

I had mixed feelings about this novel. I must admit, I was expecting to love it due to all the positive buzz. Instead, I found myself shifting back and forth from admiration to criticism. Larsson spends a good quarter of the book setting up the characters and plot, a process that at times dragged for me. Once Blomkvist gets to the Vanger compound, the story picks up and becomes more interesting. The members of the Vanger family are mostly despicable, dysfunctional characters and their faults include a propensity towards violence, Nazi activities, incest and domestic violence. Even Henrik Vanger, who is arguably one of the “good guys” lacks ethical fortitude and is not above lying to get what he wants.  There were moments when I wanted to put the book down and go take a shower after spending an hour with these characters.

Another negative for me was the relationship which develops between Lisbeth and Mikael. Mikael is nearly twice Lisbeth’s age, and although she has a tough exterior, she also has a fragility which makes her vulnerable. I found the idea that a sexual relationship would develop between them to be mostly unbelievable, and actually a bit distasteful.

Once the mystery is solved, the novel takes an unexpected turn in terms of the resolution of the case – one I found shocking and disappointing. I can’t tell you more without ruining the plot, but suffice it to say that the protection of business interests takes priority over any moral or legal responsibilities … something I found hard to stomach given the role Mikael has as an investigative reporter.

Despite these rather strong criticisms of the novel, I did find some strengths which kept me reading. The financial intrigue was the strongest element in the book for me. In fact, had Larsson just written his book around this plot, it would have been a successful novel. Lisbeth drives this part of the story, and it is her character which redeems the book.

Lisbeth is a damaged individual who has had her share of tragedy and trauma. She is mostly asocial, but brilliant. Her ability to take care of herself in a dark and dangerous world belies her fragile sense of self. I found her sad. At times I wanted to take her home and fix her. She is a sympathetic, complex character who draws the reader to her. It is because of Lisbeth that I would read the sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I care about her. I want to know what happens to her.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a raw, visceral novel. Larsson’s matter-of-fact way of describing the violence (mostly of a sexual nature) made the acts more disturbing than had he been more dramatic. Readers who have experienced sexual assault in their lives may find this novel one to be avoided. On the other hand, Larsson’s character development is above reproach, and the sections which dealt with the convoluted financial plot were intense and engaging.

So how do I rate this book which left me feeling ambivalent? I had more reservations about it than accolades, so even though I will read the sequel to find out what happens to Lisbeth, I finally decided the book deserved an average rating.

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  1. Interesting take on this book and really I think not as different from most other more positive reviews as you might think. It is Lisbeth that pulls everyone in, I think, and makes this series so compelling. I think for many people the appeal of her character is enough to outweight any negatives.

  2. I’ve got this book, but haven’t read it yet because I’ve read so many raves that I felt my expectations were probably set way too high. I was glad to read your review – now my expectations are probably more realistic.

  3. I haven’t read this one either even though its been sitting on my bookshelf for a while…one I truly would like to get to this summer!

  4. The good news is that there is a lot more about Lisbeth in the second book. And I know what you mean … I wondered how I got so sucked into these books (and I did) … it really is the character of Lisbeth I think.

    • Shonda on April 16, 2010 at 18:53

    I purchased this book and The Girl Who Played with Fire tonight. I’ve read glowing reviews for both that I’m curious to know what the hype is about.

    • Bobbie on April 17, 2010 at 04:16

    I really loved this book. However, I think the reason I loved it was because I went into it just wanting a good thriller and took it as that. I didn’t really dissect why things happen or anything. However, I think if I had read it with a more critical eye I would have seen the same things you did.
    I just received The Girl Who Played With Fire and so far I am not impressed. I am hoping it picks up.

  5. SNAP – yet another ratings match! I thought there were some good bits in this book, but also a lot of flaws. I think you must have enjoyed this more than me as I’m not planning to read the sequel, but I will watch the DVDs of the series. I’m in no rush, and will be happy to wait for them though. I was surprised by how much people raved about this book, but it is good to know I’m not alone in being ambivalent.

    • Judith on April 17, 2010 at 14:35

    I so appreciated your very personal and honest appraisal of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Your review is especially meaningful because I finished it yesterday morning. Your critiques are sensitively wrought and I always find much to think about after I’ve read them. Thank you!


    • Amy on April 18, 2010 at 11:00

    I’ve got this book, but haven’t read it yet because I’ve read so many raves that I felt my expectations were probably set way too high. I was glad to read your review – now my expectations are probably more realistic.

  6. I am sorry you didn’t have a better reaction to TGWTDT but I urge you to read the second one. I enjoyed it immensly and found it better than its predecessor. I am now looking forward to reading the third book. I am hoping to be able to get my fiance to take me to see the movie which is now showing at the theater down the street from us.

  7. I read this a few months ago, and felt much the same as you did. There was just too much minutia and set-up for the main story, and I found that I didn’t like any of the Vangers very much. I did really like Lisbeth Salander and have thought about reading the other books to find out what happens to her, but I probably won’t. I did like the very end of the book, where Lisbeth strikes out on her own, so maybe if that is the plot of the next novel, I will reconsider. Great review!

    • Wendy on April 20, 2010 at 04:40

    Rhapsody: I agree – Lisbeth is the glue that holds the book together. After I wrote this review I browsed around and read a bunch of reviews of this book and discovered you were right – a lot of people felt as I did about the book!

    Kathy: I think my very high expectations played a role in my being a bit disappointed with the book.

    Staci: I think this is a good summer read…will look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

    Jenners: I have been hearing that the second book is better BECAUSE there is a lot more Lisbeth!

    Shonda: I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on the books!

    Bobbie: I think your the first person I’ve heard say the second book is not that good! I actually wanted there to be more thrills in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo…but it was a slower read than I expected.

    Jackie: Glad to know we still are agreeing on most of the books we read! I had thought I would have loved this book based on the hype…oh well, hoping book number 2 is better!

    Judith: THANK YOU for your very kind comment! It is always fun to read a review of a book we’ve just finished reading ourselves, isn’t it?

    Amy: I’ll be interested to see what you think of the book.

    Stephanie: I will definitely read book #2…and then see what I think about reading the third one 🙂 I am always reluctant to go to a movie based on a book I’ve read…but I actually think this book would make a decent movie…so I may go to this one!

    Zibilee: Nice to see someone agreeing with my opinion on this book! I do think Lisbeth is the key to the book’s appeal…

  8. I’m waiting on the third book in the series before I read these.

    • stacy on April 26, 2010 at 10:30

    i am one of those who is in love with stieg larsson, lisbeth salandar and all his books; maybe because i’ve done a lot of research on the author ~ he is literally a James Bond in the making, cut down by a bad heart. He started a foundation and a magazine against Neo-Nazis in Sweden, lived in hiding due to his fight against racism and fascim and with his long-time girlfriend wrote The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, et al. In each book he writes about a cultural disease.

    I hope you’ll read the 2nd one. You’ll learn so much more about Lisbeth Salandar.

    • Wendy on April 28, 2010 at 07:03

    Serena: The third book is being released this summer – so you don’t have long to wait!

    Stacy: Larsson was a very interesting person – I agree! I will definitely be reading the second book because I have it already … and I am interested in Lisbeth.

    • Mree on November 17, 2010 at 11:50

    I felt like this book just dragged on and on, and on. It was really hard to keep focused. I finished it because I felt like I had to, not because I enjoyed it. Wouldn’t recommend it.

      • carolann on June 1, 2012 at 09:23

      I am at page 336 and it is finally geting to be an ok book not one of the best. The help in very god as water for elephants. I wouldn’t reccoment this one

    • Wendy on November 17, 2010 at 17:19

    Mree: Thanks for your thoughts on the book – I am finding the reviews to be split…some love it, some hate it. A few, like myself, just felt so-so about it.

    • Ally on August 21, 2011 at 23:26

    Lisbeth is the glue that makes you not wanting to put the book down. I am glad that the movie gave the book justice.

    • Wendy on August 25, 2011 at 08:11

    Ally: I agree that Lisbeth is the “glue” in the novel…I haven’t seen the movie.

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