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BOOK REVIEW OF BRAD MELTZER'S "THE FIRST COUNSEL"

By BRYAN FINE


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Originally published in the Tampa Tribune

Brad Meltzer's first novel sits on his shelf undisturbed, long since last read, thereby allowing the dust jacket to serve its appropriate purpose as a collector of dust.

"I've just about given up hope that it'll get published one day," he says, thinking back to his days in college when the environment of fraternity life provided the inspiration for his literary muses. "I sure did learn a lot while writing it, though. I wouldn't be where I am now without that effort."

The publication of his newest book, The First Counsel, serendipitously coincides with the resolution of one of America's most controversial and protracted presidential elections. Underlying the story is the tangible tension that envelops a president seeking re-election and the ends to which a campaign will go to ensure that the First Family's secrets remain secret. In this book, Meltzer introduces us to Nora Hartson, the alluring First Daughter whose recalcitrant nature threatens to raze her father's political ambitions.

Michael Garrick is a young attorney who works in the White House as one of many legal counsels to the President. He also happens to have won Nora's fancy, and it is on their first date that her reluctance to conform to the expectations made of White House occupants becomes clear. Shortly after losing her Secret Service chaperones by means of a high-speed, downtown car chase, Nora takes Michael to a seedy bar where they settle into a corner for some quiet, uninterrupted conversation. That they happen to spy a top White House official standing nervously in the corner is an unexpected, and apparently overwhelming, temptation for Nora, who coaxes Michael into following the man when he hurriedly leaves.

This decision, and Nora's subsequent ill-advised choices, catapults them both into a complicated web of murder and bribery charges that threatens to destroy the foundation of the White House. It is Michael's inveterate loyalty to Nora, his refusal to implicate her even though it might save his own career and ultimately his life, which drives the unpredictable and wildly entertaining plot. The presidency of the United States is on the line and the life of one young man is tenuously treading water.

Meltzer admits that researching the story was difficult. He spent hours in Washington, DC libraries and had to call in favors from friends in high places. "The secrets are well guarded, even after the principals are gone," he says, and then goes on to recount the way by which his interview with a former First Daughter took place. "Faxes," he says, shaking his head with an understanding smirk. "I never met her in person. The questions and answers were all done by fax, so everything was documented."

The primary strength of The First Counsel is Meltzer's use of familiar dialogue. Conversations between characters are easily recognizable as that which may take place in real life, with exchanges that are often witty and creative. As for his storytelling, Meltzer employs a first-person viewpoint for the first time — with Michael narrating in real time — and advances the somewhat complex plot using a traditional A to Z fashion which makes it easy for readers to follow.

Enjoying the book is wholly dependent on the reader's willingness to trust Michael and understand why he risks everything for a girl who, many times, seems unthankful for his great sacrifices. While the reader may be tempted to feel confused as to why this blind loyalty exists, Meltzer ultimately succeeds in establishing that people — even those in White House offices — are uniformly primal in their desires to balance affection and love with the pursuit of success and power. Michael's choices are made believable because the reader will be sympathetic to his circumstances and will be able to relate to the emotional tug-of-war taking place.

As for the accuracy of fact, Meltzer admits only to taking some liberties with small details that needed changing for story purposes. The secret passageways, creepy attics, and hidden weapons all are true to life, and this gives the reader an exciting glimpse into America's most secretive, protected residence.

"I remember, like it was yesterday, standing on my balcony waiting for that phone call," Meltzer says, referring to the time some years ago when he was searching for a publisher for his first novel, "and the disappointment I felt when the woman called me and began the conversation with, ‘Sorry, kid.'"

Bryan R. Fine, a FindLaw contributor and a freelance writer, is a first-year pediatric resident at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.. He has had essays, creative writing, and book reviews published locally and nationally. He writes a monthly column for Medscape.com on his experiences as a new physician, and he can be reached at bfine@yahoo.com.

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