I might regret this post. Not just because some of you are going to think I am nuts and incapable of appreciating a good novel if it bit me on the butt. But also because I could see myself in the not too distant future picking them up, reading them, and deciding that one or both is brilliant. But when have I shied away from hyperbolic pronouncements?
I once read Anthony Doerr’s novel About Grace and found it less than, oh I don’t know, less than interesting enough to care about or remember. So it was with trepidation that I gave into the urging of various blogs and reviews and a friend or two and bought Doerr’s latest bestseller All the Light We Cannot See. At first I was thinking I would like the book as it begins in the coastal town of St. Malo in the final throes of WWII. Then, rather too quickly it all started to feel a little too magical for my taste. Not necessarily in the literal, supernatural, sense, but in the sense that every detail was clearly going to be some illuminating, magical metaphor that would, no doubt, be extremely profound and moving. Magic rocks and special keys and secret compartments and…ugh. And then magic orphans in Germany who would most certainly have some sort of meaningful encounter with the magical blind girl in St. Malo. And it was all going to be deep, very deep. And I was going to learn something about human nature, and loss, and most importantly about myself. I couldn’t wait.
I ended up putting the book down really, really early on. Less than 20 pages in I think. So early on that I couldn’t remember what I didn’t like about the book and picked it up again a day later thinking I was going to like this WWII novel after all. And within a page I remembered why I put it down in the first place. Blergh.
And then came The Bees by Laline Paull. This one has been praised in many circles and was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize. Knowing this, I tried to let myself go and forget about the anthropomorphism of Flora 717 and the rest of her kin in the hive. As I read I couldn’t stop thinking about all the leaps of logic I was going to have to take in order to get through this one. Emma Straub in her New York Times review of the book sums up my early reaction:
At first, the reader questions everything. Is this really how bees are born? Is this how they communicate? By the middle of the book, I stopped wondering which tasks Paull had imagined and which were real, because they all seemed equally plausible.
Unlike Straub, however, I was unwilling to get beyond this part. There are two things I want to read about bees at this point in my life: 1) What sorts of flora John has planted in the garden to be a haven for native bees, and 2) That scientists have figured out definitively what is killing off bee colonies and how we can fix it. Short of that I don’t care so much. Throw in the fact that The Bees seems to be about a girl bee with a strong mommy urge and I really don’t care. You want to write a book about a rebellious bee? How about one where a boy bee has a mommy urge.
If I hadn’t just forced myself to finish How to Be Both I might have given one or both of these books another chance. But as it stands, I have no patience for either of them. There is guilt attached to this because of some of the personal testimony I have gotten from friends on both of these books. But we will just have to find other things on which we can agree.