Wednesday, 6 July 2011

5 Novels That Don't Live Up To The Hype

It's like paying for an expensive meal when you haven't really enjoyed it.  Or waking up with a hangover when you didn't even get that drunk.  Below are five novels that I looked forward to reading, only to finish with a somewhat empty, disappointed feeling.  Each entry is followed by a suggestion for a more fulfilling alternative.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Say what you like about Niffenegger's debut The Time Traveler's Wife, but there's one thing you can't deny: it got our attention.  About a gazillion book sales and a blockbuster adaptation later, Niffenegger went from sci-fi-tinged romance to ghostly, Gothic fare.  Unfortunately, she just didn't seem to take to this genre as well as some other authors.  While she started off with all the right ingredients (mirror twins, a haunted apartment overlooking Highgate Cemetery, a horde of family secrets), it was as if she couldn't quite get the recipe right.  We are meant to sympathise with submissive Valentina over domineering twin Julia, but I wasn't able to get past her sickly, indeterminable characterisation.  Similarly, the plot twists that come into effect in the latter half of the novel weren't as shocking as they were meant to be - we've seen it all before. 
If you're looking for a rich, well-written tale with a similar plot and themes, I suggest you try Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris.

The Death Of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
I never read Cave's first novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, so I had no preconceptions about his writing style when it came to The Death Of Bunny Munro (apart from what I had gleaned from his music).  The book is sexually explicit throughout, which in itself is no problem, but Cave seems to have used graphic scenes of masturbation over any element of plot.  And while I'm used to reading novels with unsympathetic protagonists, I found myself actively hating Bunny.  When the novel reached its climax, living up to its title in the process, I felt like throwing the book down and cheering.  Perhaps it was Cave's intention to make the reader wish for Bunny's death, thus creating a more satisfactory ending (and placing the reader in collusion with the demonic serial killer) - if so, I applaud him.
Another novel about someone confronting the end of their days is Veronika Decides To Die by Paulo Coehlo.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Let me get this out of the way first: I am a huge McEwan fan.  My problem with On Chesil Beach is not the quality of the writing, or the characterisation.  It is simply that, after thriller Enduring Love and damn near flawless Atonement, On Chesil Beach feels a little flimsy and, well, plotless.  Newlyweds travel to their honeymoon.  Bride is a virgin terrified of her wedding night, groom can hardly wait.  Their courtship is beautifully revealed in McEwan's brilliant prose, but the impressive build-up only serves to emphasise that this novel goes nowhere.
If you're looking for another good, short read by McEwan, try The Comfort Of Strangers.

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
Maybe I'm a philistine. Maybe I don't know what "art" is. Maybe I don't understand Holden Caulfield because I've never been a privileged teenager who had to "rebel" against his elite school.  There are some things that I do like about this book.  The opening passage, for instance.  And the little sister.  It's not, in itself, a necessarily bad book.  I'm just not sure how or why it has become such a much-lauded classic.
For angsty, misunderstood America, read The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The first time I read Wuthering Heights, it was during my final year at university.  And like many book-lovers, I often find myself purposely disliking a book for the simple fact that I'm being forced to read it, and would rather read something else.  So I thought I'd give Miss Bronte another chance, and re-read Wuthering Heights after graduating. Sadly, Cathy was still just as whiny and Heathcliff was even more of a bastard than I remembered.  To me, this novel is not a doomed romance, or a tragic love story.  It's an account of an incredibly destructive, co-dependent and abusive relationship.
For fans of love and pain, pick up a copy of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

A few other books which I felt let down by include: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (very interesting concept ruined by juvenile, plodding prose) and The Book of Dave by Will Self (in which a talented writer attempts, and fails, to create a believable dystopia).


  1. Ah, I'm surprised the "Bunny" book escaped the attention of the locals here. Maybe it'll be on next year's book burning list. OTOH, they may be headed to your door with torches and pitchforks since you dunned "Wuthering Heights". :)
    I think the biggest let-down you mention (for me)was "Da Vinci Code". I thought it was just an OK book, not a blockbuster. "Never Let Me Go" was pretty good, but I guessed where it was going right off the bat so I sort of rushed through it. I'm going to add 2 or 3 of your other alternatives to my reading list. :)

  2. I got the feeling that I might piss a few people off by going on about how I hated Wuthering Heights and Catcher In The Rye... but one person isn't going to love ALL the classics, right?

    With the "Symmetry" and "Bunny" books, I felt let down as each had an intriguing premise that the author failed to deliver on.


  3. I have to agree with you about Her Fearful Symmetry. It was such a strangely insipid book, for such an interesting premise. I felt like the author had gone to live for a few months near Highgate Cemetery and written something afterwards. That's it.

  4. I tried reading Catcher in the Rye for the first time just a couple years ago. I couldn't get half-way through it. Maybe I've spent too many years in front of classrooms to have any sympathy for such a whiny, self-involved MC. [But I'm not bitter....] I wondered too why this book is considered a classic.