When it comes to experience, expectations are everything.
Exhibit A: you painstakingly plan a trip to an exotic beach … and then it dumps rain the whole time, you get food poisoning, and massive mosquitoes devour you to the point of Benadryl-induced coma.
Exhibit B: you travel to a distant cousin’s wedding in a dull Midwestern city, end up running into a long-lost friend, ditching the nuptials, and spending several fun-filled days alternating between spa treatments and expensive Italian restaurants.
Reading can be similar. There are the books you are so excited for that when you actually pick them up and hate them, you are even more crushed than if you’d had lower expectations. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu, was one such title. I was instantly sold when I heard the book described as Mean Girls meets Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Sadly, it did not live up to this awesome comparison.
Seating Arrangements, by Maggie Shipstead, was another recent book that left me cold. A New England wedding scenario, a sprawling cast of WASPY characters, and a cream and periwinkle cover? Yes please! Alas, the novel was more tedious than scintillating.
I also had high hopes for Shine Shine Shine, by Lydia Netzer. I love a good speculative literary tale. But Shine felt more like a confused attempt at quirkiness, with off-putting characters and uneven plot construction. Not a good combo.
Then there are the books you’re loathe to start. They’re usually for book club, a course, or because you were strong-armed by a friend or guilted by good reviews. And they end up on your 5-Star Goodreads list.
Where’d You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple, is one of those for me. I picked it up simply because of all the praise heaped on it last year, even though it did not sound like my kind of book. A satire by one of the Arrested Development writers? Awkward! Impersonal! But in fact, Bernadette turned out to be the most clever, rollicking fun read of the year for me, with indelible, lovable characters and scenes that made me laugh out loud. (An especially good book for reading with a loved one, as I discussed a week ago).
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman, was a book club assignment — a nonfiction account of Hmong families clashing with Western doctors in Central California? Booooooring, I thought. Wrong. It was fascinating, and became one of my all-time favourite books.
If you’re not careful, Patricia will harp on at you endlessly about how good The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, is. But it didn’t hook me when I tried to read it 10 years ago. On a recent rainy Saturday, I was thumbing through a pile of books, looking for something to start, feeling unenthused by everything but wanting something to sink my teeth into. You know the feeling, right? My new beaux recommended The Secret History. If he and Patricia felt strongly about it, I must have missed something. Et voila, they were right! This time around, I couldn’t put down this dark, pulpy, early-90s noir about a clique of university Greek students getting into some seriously disturbing trouble.
What were the books that surprised you? Do you agree with my disappointments? Have you read my surprises? What did you think? I want to see your comments below!