Review: S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams

December 11, 2013 Mystery, Reviews 6 ★★★★

S. by Doug Dorst, J.J. Abrams
Published by Mulholland Books on October 29, 2013
Genres: Mystery/Thriller
Pages: 472
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
J.J. Abrams and acclaimed novelist Doug Dorst create a reading experience like no other in this dazzling novel of love and mystery.

One book. Two readers. A world of mystery, menace, and desire.

A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger. Inside it are his margin notes, which reveal a reader entranced by the story and by its mysterious author. She responds with notes of her own, leaving the book for the stranger, and so begins an unlikely conversation that plunges them both into the unknown.

The book: Ship of Theseus, the final novel by a prolific but enigmatic writer named V.M. Straka, in which a man with no past is shanghaied onto a strange ship with a monstrous crew and launched onto a disorienting and perilous journey.

The writer: Straka, the incendiary and secretive subject of one of the world’s greatest mysteries, a revolutionary about whom the world knows nothing apart from the words he wrote and the rumors that swirl around him.

The readers: Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, both facing crucial decisions about who they are, who they might become, and how much they’re willing to trust another person with their passions, hurts, and fears.

S., conceived by filmmaker J. J. Abrams and written by award-winning novelist Doug Dorst, is the chronicle of two readers finding each other in the margins of a book and enmeshing themselves in a deadly struggle between forces they don’t understand, and it is also Abrams and Dorst’s love letter to the written word.

S. provided me with a reading experience unlike any other.  As soon as I heard that J.J. Abrams was involved with a book, I knew I had to read it.  The central concept of S. – two strangers get to know each other by exchanging their thoughts in the margins of a book – was conceived by Abrams and written by Doug Dorst.  S. is more of a “package” than  a book, and the package consists of a novel called Ship of Theseus by the (fake) author, V.M. Straka, the notes in the margins written by Jen and Eric, and more than 20 loose inserts (letters, postcards, photos, etc.) exchanged by Jen and Eric.  (Below is the novel and a few of the inserts.)


It was a lot to digest, and I initially began by trying to read the novel and all of Jen’s and Eric’s margin notes simultaneously.  And there are a LOT of notes; they are on nearly every page.  But it was too much for my brain to absorb.  In some cases, Jen and Eric commented directly on the story as it was occurring on a particular page.  In others, they were discussing their lives and making plans to meet.  So, after about twenty pages, I decided to read Ship of Theseus while ignoring the notes. and when I was finished, I started back at the beginning and read all of the notes.

Ship of Theseus features a man known only as S.  He has no memory of his past life, and as he attempts to uncover his identity, he ends up on a ship with some very sketchy sailors.  As he travels, he pursues a woman he met in a bar at the opening of the story, and he hooks up with a group of people who are being hunted down by the agents of a sinister corporation.  The story had some supernatural, ghostly feels, and while it was relatively enjoyable,  it wasn’t the star of this “package” for me.

Instead, I was drawn in by the relationship between Jen and Eric.  Ship of Theseus is purported to be written by an author named V.M. Straka, but there is controversy over his (or possibly her) real identity.  Jen and Eric are both separately consumed with uncovering Straka’s identity, and their correspondence begins when Jen finds Eric’s notated copy of Ship of Theseus, and she writes comments in the book in reply to him.  They leave the book in a location for the other to discover, and they continue their correspondence for a time without ever meeting.  While they initially focus on the story itself and Straka, the tone of their notes gradually becomes more flirtatious, and Jen pushes for an in-person meeting.  Eric is reluctant, and I kept thinking, “Come on, you crazy kids!  You’re PERFECT for each other!”

Adding another layer of complexity is the fact that the notes are not in chronological order.  We are able to follow the timing based on the color of ink used by Jen and Eric to write, so if you pick up on that early on, it’s not overly confusing.  This technique made the notes more fun to read, because we are privy to the direction of Jen’s and Eric’s relationship even before they are.  If you don’t get into the relationship between Jen and Eric, it’s likely that this will feel like a tedious read.  But if you do, I think you’ll enjoy following the progression of the relationship.

If S. sounds like your type of story, I’d also recommend Night Film by Marisha Pessl, which featured a similar theme of people trying to uncover the identity of a mysterious director.


6 Responses to “Review: S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams”

  1. Nicole

    I bought this book immediately after I heard about it! I just thought it was the neatest thing ever. I haven’t started reading it yet, partly because it overwhelms me but mostly because I barely have had time to read lately, but I can’t wait to start it. I’m thinking of reading like a chapter a week. I’m glad I have a firmer grasp on what to expect after reading your review, and it’s good to know ahead of time about the colors of the notes and what not. I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for sharing!

    Nicole @ The Quiet Concert
    Nicole recently posted…REVIEW: The Fiery Heart (Bloodlines #4) by Richelle MeadMy Profile

    • Stephanie

      I remember seeing you comment somewhere that you had purchased this! I can’t wait to hear what you think. And it’s definitely good to be aware of the different ink colors going in. Otherwise, there will be a lot of “Huhhhh?” moments.

      Hope you love it, Nicole!

  2. Fahima @ I Read, Ergo I Write

    Wow! I heard about this book from a friend of mine, and your review just convinced me that I HAVE to have it! First of all, I love the idea of two strangers getting to know each other this way. But the package? That just makes it all the more real, although I can understand why it would be a bit overwhelming. I wouldn’t know where to start!

    Thanks for the review, Stephanie 🙂
    Fahima @ I Read, Ergo I Write recently posted…Release Day Launch: Storm Warning by C. Quinn and E. LeeMy Profile

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