I’ve felt a little “meh” toward most of the books I’ve read recently. Last week I talked about Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome and The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, both audiobooks I didn’t love. Instead of talking about these next two books separately, I’m rolling all the “meh” into a single post so I can be done with it!

Are You Somebody? by Nuala O’Faolain

Are You Somebody by Nuala O'Faolain (cover)Are You Somebody? by Nuala O’Faolain and The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera are two books I fully expected to enjoy, even looked forward to reading. The former is the author’s memoir of growing up and living in Ireland and England, and the latter is a novel I’ve been meaning to read for years that my IRL book group happened to choose for March. Though the two are quite different on just about every front, what bothered me about both is the same. But first, a little about each.

Are You Somebody? is Nuala O’Faolain’s retelling of her childhood in Ireland as well as the years that followed. She writes about her home life growing up, her college days, the slew of jobs she worked, and constant parade people she met. O’Faolain often mentions her mother as well as her struggle to define herself as a separate person from her mother. The whole book felt like a blur to me. As I write this, just a week or two after I finished the book, I can hardly remember a single detail. There was a lot of drinking, plenty of name-dropping, some naive and unhealthy relationships…and that’s all I can recall. To me, the book lacked cohesion, like the author had written down snippets of memories and organized them roughly by time period but never bothered connecting them to one another or fleshing them out. I never felt like I got to know a person (the author included) or understand a place. If I hadn’t been reading the book for a challenge, I’d have given up.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (cover)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, I think, one of Milan Kundera’s best known works. In it, he explores concepts such as lightness and heaviness, along with some philosophical notions, through a rather thin veneer of story. There are Tomas and Tereza, husband and wife; Karenin, their dog; Sabina, one of Tomas’s many mistresses; Franz, another of Sabina’s lovers; and several others. The story of their lives is told in seven parts, which occur largely out of chronological order. The author breaks into the narration frequently, at one point even acknowledging that his characters aren’t real. Philosophical ideas are introduced throughout and then applied to the story, though not in a way that ever made sense to me. Four of the six people in my book group quite liked The Unbearable Lightness of Being, so I’m in the minority, but I was disappointed. Again, I’d probably have given up on it had it not been something I’d committed to reading.

The overarching problem I had with both Are You Somebody? and The Unbearable Lightness of Being was that I just didn’t care. Both books set up a distance between reader and book, the first by skimming over the surface of O’Faolain’s life without ever diving deeper and the second by making the story secondary to the exploration of philosophy and the musings of the author. The only person or character I liked in either book was Karenin, the dog in the Kundera novel. His section was the only one that elicited emotion from me.

I suppose my problem is that I like to be immersed in the books I read. I like books that make me think, but they have to make me feel and experience and see and hear as well. I don’t want to be told a bunch of loosely connected things. I don’t want to read a philosophical or political discourse thinly disguised as fiction. I couldn’t get absorbed in Are You Somebody? or The Unbearable Lightness of Being; both kept their distance. I don’t want to say that I never like books that stay apart from the reader, but for the most part, they leave me cold.

I’m glad I read both books, I suppose, especially the Kundera, which I have been meaning to get to for several years now. I owned copies of both, so if nothing else, that’s two fewer books on my bookshelf!

Your Turn!

What books have you anticipated really enjoying but ended up being disappointed with?

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  1. Well, that was certainly the nicest way to display your disappointment! I suppose we learn as much from books we don’t like as those we do, but it’s a trial to get through them sometimes.

  2. I liked UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, but I admit to getting a bit impatient with it in the second half, excepting the section involving the dog. The emotion that broke through was a shock, and it juiced the novel.
    A hyped novel of a few years ago that disappointed me was THE LACE READER. And I had a funny objection: too much plot! I became increasingly disbelieving, and finally I stopped about 30 pages from end, in middle of big boffo Hollywood finish.

  3. This has happened to me with so many books and it makes me feel guilty, although I know I shouldn’t. It happens for the same reason you describe–I just don’t care. I felt this way about The Time Traveler’s Wife, Amsterdam, and On Chesil Beach.

  4. I also don’t like books that separate the reader from the narrative too much, so I am not sure that I would really like these books. I have a book by Nuala O’Faolain on my shelves, and I can only hope that it’s a better read than this one was! I also had been curious about The Unbearable Lightness of Being for such a long time, but it sounds sort of intimidating to me, and after your reactions, I am not really sure I want to read it now.

  5. There were a lot of things I liked about Unbearable Lightness – namely I thought some of the ideas it suggested were really beautiful and provocative – but I did struggle with it as well. I found it rather meandering and more like a philosophical treaty than an actual novel, which made it hard for me to stay motivated with it. I think it’s a book that has a lot of merit, but I completely believe that it’s not for everyone.

  6. For me it was the book Peeps by Scott Westerfeld. I went into it thinking I was going to love it for two reasons: 1) Scott wrote it and 2) a new take on vampires? Sign me up. But I was very disappointed, especially in the ending. It pretty much ruined the book for me. 🙁

  7. That’s always disappointing when you read a book that has been gushed over, and it turns out to not work for you. 🙁 And what a surprise with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, too – I’ve heard quite a bit about it, but have not read it.

  8. Nothing worse than reading (and then reviewing!) books you feel “meh” about. All I remember of the MOVIE version of Unbearable Lightness of Being is the hat. Not sure that was even in the book.

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