Can a book be ruined by a bad beginning?
I think so. And the first 10% of "Shutter Island" is too pleonastic to be good. I can see the purpose of the narration of Teddy's life and his relation with the sea, but it's too weak to be useful. And the doctor's memoir is just useless. And boring.
The novel takes off when Teddy and Chuck get to the island, and the book could begin exactly there, giving the few useful information about Teddy's past in next few pages. But it has to be shown, not told. And here's where Lehane failed the most. The action was too bland, and characters' motivation wasn't strong enough. If it wasn't for this Book Club, I'd have dropped the book after a few paragraphs.
But when Teddy and Chuck first meet the doctors, the novel jumps on another level, and the story begins to have a certain grip on the reader.
The plot itself is not bad: the whole illusion vs. reality idea is rather old and hackneyed, but in this novel it's taken from a fresh (at least for me) viewpoint. Even if the idea of the main character gradually revealing a big conspiracy which simply does not exists is nothing new (think Philip K. Dick), I like the idea to hide it in plain sight in a psychiatric hospital.
Not a bad plot, I said, but not a great one, even. At the end, when all the pieces of the puzzle fit into place, I still wonder what made patient 67 so special to involve for several days the whole hospital staff and even some other patients in a big show put on in a really stressful moment just for his benefit. Can you think about the costs?
And if I'm not buying it, it means that Lehane wasn't able to deliver the straight of Cawley's motivation. Again, it's too weak. And, most of all, it's told not shown. It's the crucial point of the whole book: there's no conspiration, there are no super-soldier experiments; it's just a treatment put up to forward some new psychiatric theory. It's the main driver of all the book story. And it's relegated in a narration? Just casually told by the Doctor himself? No way. Show, don't tell! Motivation has to be told in terms of action, and you can not spread that action in the whole book! Be specific, for fiction's sake! In that climatic scene, when the good doctor reveals the truth about Andrew, you cannot really read "I care for you". And not even "I've devoted my career and life to this new stuff, and I won't let you take it down".
On the other hand, Teddy's motivation is evident in more than one scene. He goes trough his share of physical suffering to get to that damn lighthouse, where he can finally expose the madness af these modern time Dr Moreau... Still, in other parts of the book his motivations get mixed up: is he really after Justice, or he's just seeking some cathartic vendetta?
Bottom line, if you don't have high expectations "Shutter Island" is a likable thriller and a pleasant reading. But if you're looking for a real page-turner with a spotless twisted plot that can stand a close inspection, it may not be placed in your top ten.