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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "This is the world we live in. We share it with cholera."
An Imperfect Lens is atmospheric tale set in Alexandra, Egypt in 1883; the main character a lethal disease, cholera: ''unseen pulsing crescent moonshapes," that are steadily breeding in the exposed sewage, killing the city's poor, gradually finding its way into the houses of the rich. Feeding in the stomachs of the innocent, death is almost instantaneous - a sharp pain...
Published on April 3, 2006

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fails to Impress
An Imperfect Lens is the true story of the 1883 cholera outbreak in Alexandria, Egypt, and follows Louis Thuillier, a young French scientist, as he and his colleagues race to discover the microbe responsible for the disease. The full title of the book, however, is An Imperfect Lens: A Novel--this latter designation allowing Roiphe to create a story around the historical...
Published on July 27, 2008 by Sarah Shafer


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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "This is the world we live in. We share it with cholera.", April 3, 2006
This review is from: An Imperfect Lens (Hardcover)
An Imperfect Lens is atmospheric tale set in Alexandra, Egypt in 1883; the main character a lethal disease, cholera: ''unseen pulsing crescent moonshapes," that are steadily breeding in the exposed sewage, killing the city's poor, gradually finding its way into the houses of the rich. Feeding in the stomachs of the innocent, death is almost instantaneous - a sharp pain in the stomach, lips tinged with blue, a loss of bowel control, the body shriveled, turned grey like slate.

Paranoia is rife; the wealthy see it as a sign of the city's drinking and lack of morality, the less fortunate see it as a mark of God's will, a way for the rich to rid the city of an unwanted population. How is the disease transmitted? By air or bird droppings, or perhaps even food. People are instructed to always rinse their hands, and never eat unwashed food from market stalls. But the microbes continue to spread, on the edges of bed linen, on the shoes of unsuspecting servants, splashing in the city's puddles, streams and open sewers, on the surface of fruit, the edges of plates and cutlery.

Three Chemists from Paris - Louis Thuilliers, Emile Roux and veterinarian Edmond Nocard - are dispatched directly from the laboratories of famous scientist Louis Pasteur to Alexandra, hoping to isolate the microbe. The sights, sounds and smells of this exotic city, immediately seduce the idealistic Louis. Almost at once, he falls for Este Malina, the daughter of the City's Jewish doctor, who is the verge of being engaged when Louis meets her at dinner at the French consulate's home.

Este, bored with her life, begins to help out in the laboratory, awakening to the possibility of a career in the sciences, with Louis at her side. She hopes to marry her paramour, but her imminent engagement and Louis's humble background irrevocably stands between them. Her religion also is a barrier, with her father and his wife, considering the Jewish faith so much more than just a faith "but a cord that inevitably binds them."

Louis and Este's love affair plays out against a cholera epidemic that pressingly evades the lens of the scientists and the city's authorities. The other characters are equally caught in this stew of city waste, men with their own personal demons and small enjoyments: There's Eric Fortman, an Englishman from Liverpool, a good salesman and a sturdy traveler, determined to start a new life in Alexandra as an importer and a businessman, a type of reinvented merchant prince who can slip money into the right hands at the right time.

And there's Marcus, Louis's rebellious young assistant, who one night beneath the boardwalk, witnesses Masika, a hotel maid, succumb to the disease: "pools of fecal liquid gathering by her hips, the illness taking over her body like a colonial power, killing everything in its way."

The lives of the main protagonists, however, are diminished in the light of author Anne Rophie's harrowing and exquisitely wrought descriptions of a city on the brink, where in the bazaar, the olive pits and the splashes of wine and overripe fruit mingle on the cobblestones with the blood of slaughtered animals. Children with their hands out, crouching in doorways, flies stuck to their encrusted eyelids. The heavy sweat of the day, the dust in which all these things are stirred, and a young boy who suddenly becomes ill and violently dies, "the contents of his bowls flowing over the mud of the stone curb."

Rophie's Alexandria is historically accurate, with cholera not simply content to attack the intestines of its victim, but ravage pocketbooks of the entire town, spreading hunger and despair, sending thousands to pray and others to shut themselves up in their rooms. Her characters are young and impulsive, overwhelmed by idealism, yet torn apart and frustrated by their inability to fight this terrible disease, caught up in a race, where everything they try proves useless.

An Imperfect Lens is not an easy book to read, and it's depictions of the epidemic are unflinching in their detail. Yet it shows that the war between man and bacteria is endless and constantly changing and is never won entirely, by one side or the other. The story is a timely reminder of the importance of research and science in a world where everyone needs to understand that things must be proved and evidence given, so that human life can be saved and that hopefully all disease can be defeated. Mike Leonard April 06.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fails to Impress, July 27, 2008
By 
Sarah Shafer (Fort Collins, CO USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: An Imperfect Lens: A Novel (Paperback)
An Imperfect Lens is the true story of the 1883 cholera outbreak in Alexandria, Egypt, and follows Louis Thuillier, a young French scientist, as he and his colleagues race to discover the microbe responsible for the disease. The full title of the book, however, is An Imperfect Lens: A Novel--this latter designation allowing Roiphe to create a story around the historical facts. This she does in the form of a love story between Thuillier and a fictional protagonist.

In style, An Imperfect Lens reminds me of the work of Richard Preston and Erik Larson. But while The Hot Zone (Preston) and The Devil in the White City (Larson) are nonfiction that read like novels, Roiphe's book is a novel that reads like nonfiction. The characters are not very well developed, the story predictable, and even her detailed descriptions of Alexandria failed to move me (perhaps because, as is apparent in the Author's Note and Acknowledgements, she has never been to Alexandria).

Yet it is not a scientific history, either; there is very little to be learned about cholera itself. There are passages describing epidemics going back to ancient times, but we know only as much as the doctors and scientists in 1883. The descriptions of how the disease manifests itself are graphic but not especially informative, and little is said about the reasoning behind the scientists' methods.

If this were meant purely as a history, I would consider it better. However, Roiphe chose to create a separate story, in which she was limited only by her imagination, and it is in fact rather boring.

Perhaps her final statement in the Author's Note sums it up best:
"If any reader suspects that I would rather have been a scientist than a writer, I would immediately confess my preference for truth over fiction."
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb novel, direct to the soul, April 28, 2006
This review is from: An Imperfect Lens (Hardcover)
"If the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?" Walt Whitman wrote, in what could be the epigraph to this wonderful novel of science and love. Anne Roiphe shows that the men seeking to save the human body from the ravages of disease are modern knights. As a girl, her heroine dreams of a poet; as a woman, she discovers love with a scientist. Every sentence of the story is poetry - but sharper poetry than Lawrence Durell's prose about the same city, Alexandria. When you start reading, be ready not to stop till the last word.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful story,beautifully told., January 17, 2013
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This review is from: An Imperfect Lens: A Novel (Paperback)
This is a well researched tale...full of human interest and historically accurate. You feel the impending doom in every small detail.
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An Imperfect Lens: A Novel
An Imperfect Lens: A Novel by Anne Richardson Roiphe (Paperback - October 24, 2006)
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