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