This week’s prompt: “Books You Felt Betrayed By. Beware the Ides of March! What books (or characters) did you feel betrayed by, for whatever reason…big or small.”
It was hard to narrow this down! I find myself often going into hyped up books with high expectations, but the ones I’ve ended up choosing really stand out to me, not only because I wasn’t crazy about them, but because they had so much potential to be better.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón: In a way this acclaimed novel is in itself a love letter to books, and for that reason alone I wanted to love it. Throw in a mystery that goes back generations, and the premise has me hooked. I also have plenty of friends who loved this book… but I just wasn’t able to. First there’s the predictability: this is a book full of twists and turns and ‘shocking’ reveals, every single one of which I was able to see coming. Here’s a handy guide to guessing the plot twists in The Shadow of the Wind: what seems like the most obvious thing that’s going to happen? Yeah, that’s it. And then there’s the misogyny: the treatment of female characters is downright deplorable, from the fact that all women are defined as their role of mother or love interest, to a particular instance of one woman ending up alone and miserable as some sort of narrative comeuppance for (perfectly reasonably) rejecting the advances of a male character earlier on. I found this book deeply personally insulting on more than one occasion. And it’s not a bad story at all, the writing and translation in particular are absolutely gorgeous and the atmosphere of Barcelona is captured beautifully, but I found it impossible to look past the sexism in my overall assessment of this novel.
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: I was excited to have the excuse to read this recently for a book club. I’d never read anything by Roxane Gay, fiction or nonfiction, but have admired her for a while as a contemporary feminist icon. But this book… was a mess. From the awkward staccato prose to the melodramatic dialogue that seemed to spring right out of a Lifetime movie to the overly graphic, almost voyeuristic depiction of sexual assault… This was an ambitious book: Gay tried to tackle issues of racism, sexism, and classism, but the result came across as an incredibly amateur, muddled mess. There were certain things I liked – the depiction of PTSD in particular was excellent – but I mostly felt let down by the lack of nuance for a subject that deserved so much more. I wonder if Roxane Gay is one of those writers who’s better suited to nonfiction.
The Girl Before by JP Delaney: There’s nothing worse than starting a book and being sure that you’ll love it, only to realize that what you were sure was going to be a 5-star rating is gradually dropping with every page you turn. The Girl Before started out as one of the creepiest thrillers I’ve read in a while with its unique premise: two women at two separate times agree to move into an experimental house designed by a famous minimalist architect, and in exchange for paying low rent, the house comes with a set of rules – no pets, no clothes left strewed on the floor, no clutter of any kind. The chapters alternate between Then: Emma and Now: Jane, and as you see the two women fall into the same patterns of behavior, the parallels between their narratives make for a tense and terrifying read. But then it all went downhill. All of my complaints come down to the plot twists, so to avoid spoilers, I won’t get specific. I’ll just say that I thought this was building up to be something really unique and spectacular, but a ridiculous and outlandish twist killed it. (see my full, spoiler-filled review HERE)
Mischling by Affinity Konar: When I first learned about Josef Mengele in a high school World History class, I was both horrified and morbidly interested. Mengele was a Nazi researcher who performed cruel and inhumane experiments on victims in Auschwitz, focusing on those with unique genetic makeups, such as identical twins. Mischling is the fictional account of two of these twins, Pearl and Stasha, alternating between their perspectives, both during their time at Auschwitz and in the chaotic aftermath of its liberation. While I was fascinated by the premise of this book, I could barely get through it. It’s told in awkward, flowery prose, which rather than adding to the drama and emotion of the story, left me rather cold. Rather than an authentic exploration of a horrific period of history, this felt like an excuse to showcase the author’s writing talent, and given the subject matter, I was just uncomfortable with the whole thing. While I’m sure Konar’s writing will appeal to some, personally I didn’t think the Holocaust was a particularly appropriate subject for what was essentially an elaborate literary exercise.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: Atwood and I have a complicated relationship. I’m probably the only feminist in the world who can’t stand The Handmaid’s Tale (for reasons that have nothing to do with feminism – I just found it an unnecessarily frustrating read), though I did really enjoy The Blind Assassin. But anyway, as a lover of Greek mythology I couldn’t wait to read The Penelopiad, a retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective – from a renowned feminist writer, no less. Unfortunately, feminist is the one thing this book was not. You know those purportedly feminist narratives that are like, ‘Our special narrator isn’t like other girls… she reads BOOKS and is sexy because of her BRAIN! Not like those awful girls who have a different boyfriend every week!’ – well, throw in some mythology and you’ve pretty much got The Penelopiad. While Penelope’s character is well developed, it’s at the expense of pretty much every other female character in the story: Clytemnestra, Anticlea, Eurycleia, all treated with downright contempt by the narrative… and that’s not even to mention Helen: Helen who, in the original story, is taken against her will, who unfairly laments her role in the bloodshed in a war that really doesn’t have much to do with her, but here we can’t go five pages without some snide comment about Helen, the narcissistic whore. It’s unnecessary, it’s distasteful. The only other character who’s really afforded any depth here is Odysseus. In drawing from a world already so thoroughly doused in misogyny, rather than being the feminist subversion I thought it was going to be, The Penelopiad is a continuation of demonizing fictional women – or exonerating one at the expense of all others.
What do you guys think? What are some books that you felt betrayed by?