One critique of Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing is that there is not enough character development. While there is weight to other flaws in the work, this one strikes me as odd in particular. If the description of the book alludes to the setup of the story as 400-years of history in 300-pages, I would assume that character development is not going to be as fully realized as novels centered on one person’s story, or even the story of a few generations. In fact it was one of the intriguing parts of the novel, I thought, to be able to view history as a character in itself. Perhaps not literally, but by stretching her story from one person to the next Gyasi could demonstrate the influence of history and choice on our immediate and long-term futures; the bond between the two was unmistakably clear and relevant.
So how do our expectations set us up for our reactions to our reading? Should our expectations change depending on what we are reading or should we account for the unique story of every book before judging the content? Should our critiques of a novel reflect the context of the novel itself (genre, ambition, page length, etc.) or should we judge it across-the-boards on the same expectations we have of every book (character development, storytelling, language, etc.) or a combination of the two or neither? How do you reflect on a book?
My guess is that most active readers have had a moment where an acclaimed book, raved and reviewed by everyone in the world (it seems), comes across as “eh” or worse: is never finished. Here are a few of mine:
- Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (finished it, depth of characters was lacking and the door portals often came across as “too easy” compared to the realities of immigration)
- The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (didn’t finish it – couldn’t get past the angsty teenagers)
- The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (finished it but felt it got tedious and lost the storytelling arc at times)
- My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (finished it, beautiful writing but the story just had me shrug and go “eh” and I haven’t read any of the others)
In these examples, I had set my expectations based on their hype, the type of criticism they received, my experience reading other works by the author, and/or their subject matter. In one way or another something didn’t connect or work. I questioned my own reading and credibility. If everyone else is swooning for a particular book, what am I missing for thinking “I’m done. Don’t want to read anymore. Again. Ever. Finished.”
Nothing is wrong with me. I’m fine. Likely, nothing substantial is wrong with the book either. Time for my Shoulder Angel to appear and remind me that there are different books for different people. And that’s okay. My recommendations won’t work for everyone, and neither will all of everyone’s recommendations work for me. I’ve had a couple of these moments as well.
- Home by Marilynne Robinson is one of my all-time favorite books. It is the middle of her Gilead series so perhaps that is my first problem, starting someone off in the middle, but it’s how I came to the series so it can’t be completely futile. But when I recommended it to a friend it was returned with an apologetic “I just didn’t like it much.”
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss was recommended to me by my sister and her husband who are avid readers of fantasy. They knew this genre was not on my radar and so they selected one in particular that they thought had a chance of introducing me to the mystical and mysterious world of fantasy. I trust their judgements because they know me and they know fantasy – this absolutely would not have worked if it had been a stranger just recommending a favorite book. Alas, I tried. I couldn’t get into it, even after 100 pages. I tried guys, I really did! Different books for different folks, I guess.
- I recently posted an enthusiastic review on Instagram of The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart and recommended it in the comments specifically to my sister-in-law for her middle-school reader. He passed on reading it, and she said she’s stalled in the middle (which I think is a fair assessment, I recall that I did too for a while so we’re not that far off), but I loved the concept behind it and thought the writing was suitably tense, ethically ambiguous, and respectably predictable for the targeted middle grade age-range. But, no go. Ah, well.
Obviously, I’m not going to stop reading because I don’t have 100% success with every book. Nor am I going to stop sharing books I enjoy just because I can’t achieve perfection in that realm either. But I do find value in reflecting on these expectations and examining their place in refining both areas.
Three-ish questions for you:
1) What factors lead you to add a book to your own To-Be-Read pile?
2) How do you determine what titles to suggest when someone asks for a reading recommendation? Or do you have a set of books that you just uniformly always recommend?
3) What books have you read that did not meet your expectations? What books have you recommended that bombed?