I wonder if you have conversations like this in your household. They’ve happened a few times recently because some of the books I’ve had on the go have been rather disappointing.
Me : This book isn’t grabbing me
Mr BookerTalk: Find something else then .
Me: Maybe it will get better – I’ll read a couple more chapters
Mr BookerTalk: Why bother if you don’t like it
Me: It’s had good reviews. I could be missing something
Mr BookerTalk: Really????
Me: I’ve read half of it already. Seems like a waste of time now not to finish it…..
Mr BookerTalk: But you’re going to waste even more time if you finish it and you still don’t like it….
Does that sound familiar at all? I know some readers operate a rule that if a book hasn’t grabbed them by about page 50 or so, then they’ll give it up as a lost cause. The page number seems a bit arbitrary – some people operate an 80 page rule and others about 100.
My own rule of thumb varies a lot. Sometimes (as in the case of The House at Riverton) I can tell within about 10 pages that’s it’s not worth going any further. Other times it will take me to around about the 80 page mark.
But in the case of my recent experience with two novels published in 2013 I was half way through and having trouble making up my mind.
Dilemma number 1 was triggered by Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I had such high expectations for this having read multiple reviews which called it ‘astonishing’ or words to that effect. Being made to wait almost 3 months for my library reservation to come through, just meant the expectations got higher and higher. Which made the disappointment even greater when I started reading it and found the experience under-whelming. The first 40 pages were intriguing enough to keep me reading but it felt very fragmentary. I was hoping that if I continued to read I’d find it would develop into a more cohesive narrative but it didn’t. I battled on purely on the basis that I’ve enjoyed all her previous novels, and this has been lauded as her best, but at around 200 pages, I decided to give up. I remembered having the same feeling about this book that I’d had when reading The Time Traveller’s Wife which I’d read through to the end but wish I hadn’t bothered. So back to the library it went.
Dilemma number 2 was over Colum McCann’s Transatlantic which was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I was curious about this one because it’s his first since the award-winning Let the Great World Spin which I’d enjoyed in part. Transatlantic is written in a similar vein in that it begins with the dramatisation of an actual historical event (in this case, the first non stop flight across the Atlantic) and then proceeds through several inter-connected stories. The section dealing with Alcock and Brown’s flight was wonderful but McCann’s narrative didn’t sustain that initial impetus and got dragged down in some cliched writing and some rather pedestrian characterisation of an American politician trying to broker a peace deal to resolve the Irish conflict.
In this case I kept going purely on the basis that the synopsis of the book mentioned a narrative strand that hadn’t yet materialised. And fortunately in this case I made the right decision because the last third of the book was back to the same quality as the first third.
But I still don’t have a clear rationale for when to abandon a book or when to persevere. Maybe there isn’t such a thing, maybe it will also be a subjective decision. How do you all resolve this question – any suggestions on approaches??