Stephenie Meyer changes it up fairly dramatically in The Chemist (2016), her second adult novel, where there is nary a vampire, werewolf or space alien to be found. It’s a rather pulpy but absorbing thriller in the vein of a Jason Bourne novel (to whom she’s dedicated this novel, among others). There’s no real speculative element here, other than perhaps some new developments in chemical-based torture and some startlingly smart dogs.
The narrator, a bright, rather repressed molecular biologist, was originally hired by a nameless government agency to do cutting-edge medical research, but ended up being pressured to use her medical skills to create biological compounds that cause severe pain without permanent physical damage, and then to use them for torture-assisted interrogations sanctioned by this agency. She justified doing this because it was for the purpose of fighting terrorism and major crime. But something she learned made her a liability for the agency: a poisonous gas attack killed her co-worker and just missed her.
When our story begins, our protagonist, whom we’ll call Alex since that’s the name she adopts for most of the story, has been on the run and in hiding for three years, routinely changing her name and her address. Alex arms herself to the teeth each day, with guns, syringes filled with various useful and often deadly solutions, and readily breakable glass earrings containing a caustic gas. And she sets up an appallingly elaborate booby trap in her apartments before she goes to sleep each night, with a dummy in the bed (complete with a fake bewigged head) and with wires attached to it that will set off her homemade poison gas if the dummy is disturbed, while she sleeps in the bathtub wearing a gas mask every night. Her preparations have paid off: in this way she has killed three assassins that the agency has sent after her.
So Alex is understandably alarmed when one of her old bosses contacts her via email, offering a chance to do a final job for them, capturing a nice-looking young man, Daniel Beach, who, according to the government’s files, has a secret side job as a biological terrorist, and extracting needed information from him using her skills with chemical compounds. If she does this, her contact promises, there will be no more threats to her life from the agency. Knowing it could be a trick, but wishing for some peace in her life, and moved by the threat of a biological attack that could kill hundreds of thousands, Alex takes on the job despite her suspicions.
She was right to be suspicious.
The job goes south in a dramatic way (which is what Alex’s handlers were counting on) but ― despite some major bruises and a couple of really beautiful black eyes ― it turns out to be a game-changer for Alex’s life. Now she has some people on her side, and they all have a bone to pick with certain government agencies. The hunted turn into the hunters. And Alex now has a love interest that she’s not at all certain is a good idea to pursue, but who intends to stick by her side despite a (literally) torturous beginning to their relationship.
The Chemist is a fast-paced, light suspense novel that quickly sucked me into Alex’s world. Meyer clearly did quite a bit of homework with respect to the molecular biology and other scientific and medical elements of the plot. These details are realistic and intriguing, without bogging down the plot. The preternaturally intelligent trained dogs occasionally perform eyebrow-raising feats, but they added a definite spark to the story.
Meyer’s characters are generally types that the reader will recognize ― the geeky female scientist, the handsome and sincere love interest, the hostile and highly capable Navy Seal who is (almost) always prepared for whatever may go wrong ― but their personalities are fairly well-developed, if not necessarily surprising. Alex is a much more proactive, take-charge person than Bella, Meyer’s much-maligned heroine in Twilight. The gradual thaw in Alex’s personality and her ever-devoted love interest will warm the hearts of Meyer’s fans, though this earnest love story mixes somewhat uneasily with the torture plotline and the high body count. All of the main characters off several people during the course of the story, though more tender-hearted readers can comfort themselves with the thought that by and large the dead probably deserved their fate.
Despite its length, The Chemist moves along quickly; I finished it pretty much in one evening and never got bored. This would be a good beach ― or perhaps Christmas vacation ― read.