Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Shelf-Sitter Challenge: Book 11

The eleventh book for my Shelf-Sitter Reading Challenge is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, and, sadly, it is another DNF. I really thought I would love this book. But 200 pages into a 1,006 page tome, I have no desire to continue with it.

I've been having a hard time putting my finger on what exactly is not working for me here. I really enjoyed the first few chapters-- the style, the subtle humor, the slowly unfolding mystery of the magic. But then the action shifted abruptly, leaving behind all the characters I was interested and invested in, and followed the path of the one I cared about the least. I've been waiting for Jonathan Strange to make his entrance, hoping that when he did he'd take the story by the balls and make it go somewhere, but now I feel that 200 pages is more than enough time to introduce a character with a goal, and I no longer trust that Clarke understands what a plot is.

I'm very conflicted about quitting on this one-- similar to how I felt about Outlander. I expected to enjoy this book, I respect the author's writing skills, and loads of smart people seem to love love LOVE it. And I certainly COULD finish it, if I set my mind to it. But is it worth the effort? If I'm going to slog through a thousand pages, shouldn't all that work be for an actual classic?

In an effort to achieve peace with my decision, I read a bunch of reviews of JS&MN on Amazon and Goodreads. What I found was that people either loved this book or hated it-- lots of 1-, 4-, and 5-star reviews, with very little in between. The 5-star reviews mainly praised the style and tone and tour de force-iness of the book (while remaining suspiciously silent on the actual story), and often included a smugly snide remark along the lines that such a long and challenging book isn't for everyone, so if you're not smart enough to get it perhaps you should go reread Harry Potter instead. The 4-star reviews tended to admit that the reviewer hadn't enjoyed the book while they were reading it, but now, looking back, they believed it was a good book. The 1-star reviews assured me that the story doesn't pick up, and that no one comes along to grab it by the balls.

So I'm letting it go, with one last pissy retort to the snide 5-star-ers: The length and style of this book are not "too challenging" for me. I regularly read 800+ page books, and I've read many of the authors whose style Clarke is imitating here. I was not wowed by the footnotes (I've seen it done much better), but nor was my tiny mind confuzzled by them. If this story had a relatable protagonist with a clearly motivated goal and an obstacle to achieving that goal, I would continue reading it. But I'm not reading 1,006 pages just because the writing is period-appropriate and footnotes = cool.

1 comment:

  1. This was my EXACT reaction. Honestly, between the two of us, my husband and I own three copies of this book, because we kept thinking that if it was easier to carry around we might read it. Trade paperback, mass market paperback, Kindle--it didn't help. It just doesn't go anywhere.

    I will say that I really liked her set of stories set in the same world, The Ladies of Grace Adieu. I think that really captures what I like about her, while still being a little more tightly put together. And I can understand loving a book just for how it reads, rather than the story. But I usually think of those as one-offs, not universally admired books.

    Also, I felt just the same way about Outlander!