I’m trying to read a book I can’t get enthused about. I’m not up to the usual 100 pages I give it to find out if it’s worth going on with, so I might persevere for another chapter or two. I’m a life-long bookworm. Starting in year 5 primary school, by the end of year 6, I had read every book in our little classroom book cupboard (this was before school libraries). Every boys’ book, girls’ book, encyclopaedia, atlas, old ‘National Geographic’ magazines; whatever the teacher put in there. In recent years, I’ve been devouring about 80-100 books a year, but I’ve become a bit more choosy– maybe 20% get the flick when the initial promise is not fulfilled.
I pick a book based on the cover, the topic and the reviews. Top reviews like the Guardian, New Yorker, TLS, etc, tend to get me in, and recent prize-winners are always worth a look. But even when all those boxes are ticked, I can still find myself grinding to a reluctant halt. The three main hooks that keep me going are a great story, excellent writing, and key characters that I start to care about. It doesn’t have to be three out of three. A couple of years ago I read the story of Madame Cliquot, of champagne fame. The writing was almost excruciatingly bad, but the story was so engrossing, and I liked her so much, that I ploughed on. The first woman to run a champagne house, and the actual inventor of modern clear bubbly, she beat ridiculous odds of sexism, labour troubles, war and family tragedy to become the matriarch of an industry that was on its knees early in the 19th Century. Could she manage to disgorge 10,000 bottles on her own, with all her workforce on strike? Could she find a way to break through the British naval blockade to get her champagne to Russia? It was impossible to put down.
Conversely, writing that flows poetically, surprising, shocking and moving me, can make a mundane story or an unconvincing plot worth persisting with. In fact, as I write this, I realise the only consistent turn-off is when I actually dislike the key character, or at least don’t care what happens to them next. Even in a biography, where the ‘true life’ aspect gives any story a few bonus points, if it becomes increasingly obvious that the subject is a not particularly interesting and/or totally unpleasant person, no amount of sparkling prose and interesting history will keep me going. Especially if the biographer fails to add any new insights about the events and people they are describing.
So my ‘best books’ are, unsurprisingly, the ones that have all three qualities. I’ve just finished reading one that makes the cut– ‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer. It had the catching cover, the reviews and the prizes a-plenty. It is so well written that I kept asking my partner to let me read the best paragraphs aloud to her. She, sensibly, told me to let her read it. (A week later, and now she is reading them out to me!). Simple one-liners with a twist stay with you– ‘It was one of those San Francisco bars that was neither gay nor straight, just odd’. The story, a man of 49 facing a lonely middle age, resonates with events in my own life, and I’m sure of many others. It is the funniest book I’ve read for a while, and I cared very much what might happen next to our hapless protagonist.
And the book before that–I almost forgot. ‘Circe’ by Madeline Miller. What a roller coaster of a journey that was. From page one she asked me to get into the world of gods and mortals in ancient times. Monsters, spells, enormous violence and earthy sex had me page turning in total absorption, cheering on the heroic but conflicted Circe, who is a witch but not quite a god. Way outside my usual genres of choice, but it delivered those in-the-moment, in another world experiences that great books are all about. To top off the package, the writing itself could make me laugh, clap and cry. Whatever Madeline Miller writes next, I’m in.
Back to my current book, the one I’m struggling with, ‘Invitation to a Bonfire’ by Adrienne Celt. It looked so good, and the publishers gush got me in—‘Part psychological suspense, part literary puzzle, a smart seductive thriller.’ Set in 1920’s Russia and 1930’s America. What could go wrong? Of course I should confess that it is an advance copy, so the real reviews are not available yet. I know that whatever publishers and their obedient client authors write, it might be of the ‘Well, they would say that wouldn’t they?’ variety. Kind of sad really; that I don’t trust all these authors, some of them wonderful writers, to give an unbiased review. Their couple of paragraphs on the back cover can be very lucid enticements. But everything in an advance copy is marketing spin, aimed at getting booksellers to stock it. And, regrettably, this time it turns out to be not much to my liking. A complicated plot structure, too many names to remember, and a central character I just can’t get acquainted with. Ah well. At least these uncorrected proofs don’t cost me anything. When I pay $30 or more, I usually feel obliged to try a little harder. Maybe it will begin to make sense in the next chapter—I’m doubtful, but the author has probably put a year’s work into this, so an hour or two more seems the least I can do.