It seems that half the time when I blog about books, I write about the difficulty in finishing them rather than the books I actually have read through. Do other readers have the same problem? The book bloggers I’ve come across not only appear to read at an impressive rate, but also to finish the novels they’ve started as a matter of course. Since the spring, however, I’ve had several slightly depressing “I really don’t want to spend hundreds of more pages in these characters’ company” experiences.
First, it was a sort of crime story set in late 19th century New York. The settings were glamorous, the villain passably suave, if something of a gentleman gangster cliché, but after two hundred pages there was nothing to compel me to go on, as the protagonists – a well-to-do family who gets more and more involved with underworld activities due to their own stupid choices – did not interest me one jot. A little later, I started on Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I might eventually get through, but not for a while. The Swedish translation is lively enough, but a little of this whimsy goes a long way: it’s awkward when a novel that would make a good lunch-time read during a working week is too bulky to lug to work (700 pages plus). Unlike with Kafka On The Shore, I don’t feel sufficienly drawn into a fascinating parallel world to want to spend hours of my precious summer holiday there. Then, there was the time-travel yarn in the vein of Jasper Fforde – complete with ballsy heroine – which was sadly not as good as anything by Jasper Fforde. I know that’s a pretty high standard to hold something up to, but it’s difficult to find the motivation to go on with something that is supposed to be light entertainment but which you don’t actually enjoy. I’d rather wait around for the real Thursday Next (where is she?).
A book I really must finish, as I’m already on page 426, is Anne O’Brien’s The King’s Concubine. And, well… It’s not bad. One quoted review calls it “better than Philippa Gregory”: I’d put it on the same level as Gregory novels I’ve read, but then I’ve not always been bowled over by those. The subject matter – Alice Perrers, a maligned mistress of the English king Edward III – sounds juicy enough. There’s a love interest with villainy attributes that jollies things along for a bit. But 620 pages? The rivalry between Alice and the king’s daughter-in-law Princess Joan, of which I had some hopes after a foreshadowing encounter between the two women when Alice was still a lowly novice in an Abbey, hasn’t really gone beyond petty court sniping yet. It doesn’t help that Edward III is the kind of chivalrous warrior king the English love, i.e. dull: not like his bruiser grandfather or his father of poker and unsuitable boyfriend fame. A plus when reading a novel about an historical figure you have no previous knowledge of is that you don’t know what will happen to him or her. The problem in Alice’s case is I don’t care that much. She rises from nothing, she’s ambitious, and a hard-headed businesswoman: the novel convinces me that she has a case. I just wish it hadn’t been such a lengthy one.
My own mood may be part of the problem here. The annual summer holiday is when you finally have time to relax hours on end with a book – which means that at least my expectations of a gripping summer read are sky high. Every page wasted on padding or less-than-thrilling exposition is deeply resented, as valuable holiday time ticks by. There’s also the fact that I’m on a bit of a daydreaming high at the moment. Daydreams are great when you have to wait in queues or perform the odd menial household task, but maybe they make it harder to engage in other alternative worlds: the ones you can reach by fiction. Perhaps the doors to other magical realms remain closed because I don’t push at them hard enough, being quite content to dwell in dream scenarios of my own.
Anyway, Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is quite pleasant so far. If I finish that one, I might be in the right frame of mind to give Alice another try afterwards.