Leaving The Luminaries…

Giving up on a book for me is no easy thing. I have always had the feeling that people don’t tend to talk about the books they give up on as it seems like a failure. Here I may just be imposing how I feel onto everyone else, as for me if I give up on a book I always feel rather cross with myself. Though not as wracked with guilt as I used to get when I had the, now seemingly rather mad, attitude that any book I started I simply had to finish. I do have a page 50, with a page 60 clause, rule now with books and if they aren’t working by then, then it is fine (and indeed time) to put them down and move on to something else. This year I have noticed though that there have been a few books I have simply stopped half way through one of them being one of the most infamous books of the year, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

Luminaries

It’s all a blur…

In so many ways this should have been a book that I adored. A tale set in 1866 containing mystery, murder, madness, fallen women, I could go on. In many ways the tale that Walter Moody finds himself soon embroiled in after his arrival in the gold mining town of Hokitika, in New Zealand, could fall under one of my very favourite genre’s ‘the sensation novel’. As I started I had the highest of hopes, especially hearing the author loved Wilkie Collins, we were set to be best friends and this book would cement that friendship. Instead I found myself stuck and feeling more and more demoralised as I went on.

I have tried and tried, or struggled and struggled as the case may be, to love or at least like The Luminaries three times this year. The first time I simply read it in big gulps, the chapters initially being (a rather densely packed) 40 pages in length, yet these were taking me ages to read. I kept notes of all the characters and goings on, how the spider’s web was being woven etc, yet still I couldn’t get a grip on it all. So I stopped, it was making me resentful. Then I tried listening to the audio book, this worked until I got a few chapters past my previous pit stop and then as more and more characters and twists were introduced I found myself once again dumbfounded. A few weeks ago I tried again from the beginning -reading a chapter at night, then listening to it again the next day, then reading the next chapter the next night and so on and so on. This got me further but the same issues came up, too many characters, too many twists and I also started to feel like I was being played and not in an altogether friendly way.

Eleanor Catton is clearly a very clever woman, yet something about The Luminaries becomes a little smug along the way. The characters are clearly symbols and pieces of a much bigger jigsaw piece (from reviews like the lovely and normally very patient and positive Rachel have confirmed this) yet for me this was all done at the expense of getting to know them and giving a monkey’s about them. Catton has over 800 pages in this book, I started to feel if she spent as much time fleshing out each character so I started to like them and spot differences in their personalities rather than focusing on retelling and retelling the story from points of view and endlessly describing the scenery I might have got to grips with it. Whilst I understand all characters are there to tell a story or be a part of a plot or a device I am a firm believer that you should never see it. I could see the strings linking the characters to their puppet master (that is simply an analogy, not meant to sound rude) above on one too many occasions and it kept breaking the spell.

Of course the one thing I should remind myself more often is that, like people and music and many other things, we can’t always get on with everything we read. It doesn’t stop me from being really cross when this happens though, the last time it happened  on this scale was with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad which oddly enough was a book as equally fawned over whilst I was sat wanting to throw it around the room. Interestingly that book I also went between reading, listening and even using the app – though I finished it maybe I need to learn if I need that much help with a book then it is a lost cause to me. It is horrid to feel like the only one at the party not really enjoying yourself and I wonder if without all the buzz on blogs and social media maybe I would have given up on The Luminaries long before, instead I wanted to join in and so only finally gave up the ghost last week. Sigh.

I don’t tend to talk about the books I don’t finish or why I don’t finish them, but in this case because the book has been such a huge book of the year and because it has taken up so much of my reading time I thought I should, maybe I should more often – though these wouldn’t be reviews, you can’t review a book you haven’t finished can you? I could bring back unreviews I guess, what do you think? Also if any of you have tried or even conquered The Luminaries I would love your thoughts on it be they good, bad or indifferent. I would also love to know about the books everyone else has loved or have reached mass critical acclaim and have left you thinking ‘WTF?’ Ha! Oh, and anything else about giving up books really, not that I ask a lot of you all!

42 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness, Un-Reviews

42 responses to “Leaving The Luminaries…

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Oddly enough, I had the same experience with “Goon Squad” – I just couldn’t get it. As I commented on Booksnob, I think there is definitely an element of emperor’s new clothes with The Luminaries and the impression I got from commentators *before* it won the prize was that it was clever but hollow. If you can’t make your characters real and believable and people we care about in 800 pages, then something is wrong and this is obviously an extreme case of style over content. Yes, we will all differ when it comes to what we like and dislike, and it’s hard to know what to do when you don’t feel the same way about a book as everyone else.

    I struggled with “The Old Ways” recently and (just) made it through. Everyone else seemed to love it, but I wrote what I thought. I don’t believe in being negative or nasty just for the sake of it, but I do think it’s valuable to record an honest response to a book – it’s by reading a balance of views that we decide whether we want to read a book or not (I won’t be reading The Luminaries, unless anyone is mad enough to give it to me for Christmas). I like the idea of unreviews – definitely a valuable thing!

  2. Well, I hated and didn’t finish Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I found it trite, over-written and patronising. I’m now going to hide somewhere for a little while.

    • AJ

      Don’t let that keep you from trying Sula or Song of Solomon if you haven’t already. She’s never been a must read for me, but she has written better books than Beloved.

  3. It’s almost inspiring to hear when others give up on a book, particularly such a popular one. Make me feel less ashamed of the books I’ve secretly abandoned – thanks!

  4. Elizabeth Taylor

    I really wonder how much of it you read. The first chapter was 360 pages.

  5. David

    I’ve read the first few pages of ‘The Luminaries’ maybe three times now, and each time it has resisted me. I know I ought to like it so I’ve probably just not been in the right mood, but I also know if it had been a 250 page novel I’d have persevered, but the sheer heft of the thing has put me off. Conversely I’ve just started Larry McMurtry’s ‘Lonesome Dove’ which has a similar page count, but already I have the feeling that I’m going to wish it were longer!

    I hate giving up on books – it feels like failure – but I have given up on a couple that the rest of the world seems to have loved. Michelle de Kretser’s ‘Questions of Travel’ has picked up more gongs than Soft Mick, but I found it incredibly dull and a slog to read. And I also abandoned Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ at the halfway point – not because it was bad, just because I didn’t care one iota about anything that happened to any of the characters, and having found ‘The Corrections’ equally underwhelming I knew it wasn’t going to improve.

    I also recently gave up on ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, again not because it was bad (it’s actually really good) but more because it is very episodic and at some point I just felt like I’d read enough and didn’t need more.

    Oh, and AS Byatt’s ‘The Children’s Book’ was another, but that was a strange one: from one chapter to the next I kept veering between thinking it was absolutely wonderful and the most tedious thing I’d ever read! Eventually the tedium tipped the balance and I put it aside, though four years on it still has a bookmark in it and I still remember where I was up to so it must have had some impact on me.

  6. I also gave up on The Luminaries. I read the first half relatively quickly, but then I realised I wasn’t engaged at all. I didn’t care. I didn’t care what would happen to any of the characters, and I didn’t care how the plot would turn out. I wasn’t even getting particular pleasure from the writing. It was well-written, yes, but not enough to make me enjoy it just for that element.

    Funnily enough, I adored A Visit From The Goon Squad…

  7. I almost never leave a book unfinished and I was set to love The Luminaries, just like you were. I gave up after about 500 pages. Clearly Catton is a beautiful and clever writer, but what use is it if we can’t finish her book? My advice: give The Rehearsal a try. It is Catton’s first novel and I adored it (at less than 300 pages!).

  8. I didn’t used to give up on books, but I do nowadays (and say so on my blog). I recently gave up a poetry book because it was 120 pages long and the poet had produced many other books – nothing very bad, but I realised I’d have to sift for the gold. I gave up a short story collection (an author’s selected stories) because if that’s the best the author can do, I might as well not bother.

    I had no trouble with Goon Squad. I struggled with Tartt’s “The Secret History” and Franzen’s “The Corrections” but finished them. I had 2 stabs at “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”. Didn’t get further than page 33.

  9. Sorry you haven’t enjoyed this one. These things happen.

    I’ve been contemplating how I’m going to finish The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. The first couple hundred pages were great but it just slowed to a crawl… and I still have another 250-300 pages to go.

    Sometimes I will “abandon for now” with the thought that, perhaps, I may return to the book in the future…

  10. I give up on books and do talk about it – I’ve just checked and I mentioned Edith Sitwell’s “English Eccentrics” 6 times on my blog as I struggled through it (here you go: http://librofulltime.wordpress.com/?s=english+eccentrics ) and I have never fancied The Luminaries at all, but reading this helps me to back that up with other people’s experiences, which is really helpful! Mr Liz is reading it on audio book at the mo and loving it, but not sure how far he’s got …

  11. I don’t hesitate to abandon books if I reach that point with them. I have 300+ books in my the pile and not enough time to read all the ones I want to read.

    That said.since I loved Goon Squad, I think I should give this one a try.😉.

  12. I used ages on it, but I did finish and I’m glad I did. After a while I actually started caring about some of the people in it and kept wanting to know what really had happened and what would happen.
    I do give up books occasionally, my most-failed one being Crime and Punishement. I keep getting to around page 50 and completely loose interest. There’s a couple of others too.

  13. Naturally, i just picked this up at the library. The size did dismay me more than a bit. We’ll see.

    I love the idea of unreviews and always wish people would write more of them. In fact, on Goodreads, I often turn to negative reviews first as I feel they are a much more reliable quick gauge of whether I will get on with a book.

  14. David Hebblethwaite

    I’m better at giving up on books than I used to be – there are too many other books that I might love to spend time on those I won’t. The one I always remember is The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which I abandoned after five pages because I couldn’t stand all the extraneous detail.

    With unreviews, I think it depends on how you feel about the book. if you don’t want to spend more time thinking about it, it’s probably not worth it; but sometimes it can be satisfying to pin down why you don’t like a book.

    I thought Goon Squad was okay, but had expected it to be just my kind of book, so I felt disappointed. But The Luminaries? I love it as much as any book I’ve ever read.

  15. Lisa

    I scratched and clawed and fell asleep one hundred times but made it through. Mostly. And I hardly recall anything about it.

  16. Reading all this is making me nervous to read The Luminaries, but also curious to read it. I want to know which camp I will fall into. One book I recently abandoned was The Son by Philipp Meyer.

  17. I can’t wait to read The Luminaries, but I don’t think anybody should feel bad for giving up on a book, and it does sound like you put in some good effort! I really like reading reviews where people have given up on a book. It’s interesting to read the reasons why things haven’t worked. I think as long as it’s clearly disclosed then it’s OK. For me, the most notable book I have quit reading halfway through was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

  18. I haven’t read it, or tried to, but that’s two similar comments about it in two days, so maybe I won’t bother.
    I gave up AS Byatt’s Possession, although it sounded like something I would love. I might try again one day. I gave up on Robinson Crusoe too, I normally enjoy that kind of adventure-y book, and it was going well, and then he spent pages and pages going on about the Bible and it just bored me.

  19. I usually get a terrier’s span of contrentation after page 400 of any book (I got depressed finishing Anna Karenina and I don’t really want to remember those days) but I am quite enjoying The Luminaries. Yes, it is longer than what I usually read, but I like it. I know there’s something more to the characters than what I understand for now, but that’s what other bloggers are for!

    But I totally understand your point. I thought I’d give up on it after page 100 and I have surprised myself. Don’t be too hard on yourself, not every Booker Prize winner is for every reader, obviously!

  20. I have enormous respect for your journey through books and always enjoy your blog posts. So, I believe, if YOU abandoned The Luminaries, MY decision to do the same for exactly the same reasons makes me feel more confident in my judgement. Giving up on a book is always disappointing and can put a dint in ones confidence, when this happens I “clear the decks” and read a book from a favourite mystery series. It’s like “living to fight another day” because sometimes a book needs another place and another time for the reader to enjoy it. I’ll give The Luminaries another chance somewhere down the track when my head is clear and I want to put in the effort.

  21. Ivy Dass

    Loved the Egan. Didn’t like The Luminaries. There was much to admire, but it took up too much time to too little purpose.

  22. Much like you, The Luminaries had my name all over it and should have been something I adored, but I gave up after about 300 pages. I had recently finished The Goldfinch, which I absolutely loved and flew through in less than a week, so slogging through pages that I just wasn’t enjoying felt endless. It’s not often that I give up on a book, but I really didn’t want to put so much time and energy into one that felt like a chore.

  23. too bad it didn’t work out. I recently read A Tale for the Time Being which was on the shortlist, and while sections of the book are really good, and I didn’t have issues completing, the book felt a bit too contrived for me.

  24. Marte

    I would love to read about the books you don’t finish, please bring back the unreviews!

    I abandon books all the time. There are too many books I want to read, no use wasting time on those that don’t work for me. If I don’t like it after a few pages, I put it away. And I don’t feel guilty about it, because I want to spend as much time as possible reading books I love. Usually I try to read about 50 pages before I give up, but if I really dislike the writing style it can happen after less than 10 pages. Kindle samples have saved me a lot of money recently, I hated the beginning of “The luminaries” for instance. The worst are the books that are OK, and which I hope will be worth the effort, only to realise after 300 pages or more that the book is still boring and should have been abandoned.

    Books I have abandoned recently:
    Hosseini – And the mountains echoed
    Hollinghurst – The stranger’s child
    Jones – Uninvited guests
    Miller – Pure
    Strout – Olive Kitteridge
    DeWitt – The Sisters brothers

    But sometimes I abandon books because it’s the wrong book at the wrong time, and when I pick it up again later it becomes a favourite. That was the case with Adichie – Half of a yellow sun. I read 70 pages and gave up, just couldn’t connect with it. Then I tried again on a trip to South Africa, loving every word.

  25. Oh no! I’m sorry to hear this. I’m not going to read this whole post until I’ve read the book myself–I don’t want to be influenced. I’ll let you know how it goes when I finally start reading it.

  26. I recently read Updike’s Rabbit Run and man did I struggle with the urge to give up. I didn’t. I’m not sure it made any difference as I certainly didn’t like it. As I get older I give up a lot easier though, limited reading time left so I might as well be reading something I enjoy!

  27. Frenchie Caro

    When I was younger, I hated giving up on a book, it felt like a failure. Now, I’m ok with that.

    But I do have a few authors I can’t read, whatever how many times I try, such as Ernest Hemingway : the only one novel by him I managed to finish was The Old Man and the Sea because I had to read it for school when I was 13..and I hated it🙂 !
    I tried Hemingway later when I was in college and I couldn’t finish one of his books. I think Hemingway is simply unreadable for me !

    I’ve got the same problem with War and Peace by Tolstoy, tried it three times, failed three times ! But I read Anna Karenina last year and loved it so I keep hoping about War and Peace🙂

  28. Col

    I’ve started The Luminaries twice and put it down again and gone to something else after only a few pages. It sits on the floor by my desk at home – I’ve tripped over it more than I’ve actually read it! Your post makes me realise it’s ok to leave it to be tripped over for a bit yet! Am with you too on the Goon Squad – I just didn’t get it! Prior to blogging I used to think that not getting “in” books meant I wasn’t clever enough – now my fellow book bloggers allow me not to care about such things as giving up on a much-lauded book! Mind you we are all different, unlike Frenchie Caro above (and what a great name that is by the way!) I loved War and Peace! But not quite as much as I love Hemingway The Unreadable!

  29. Amy

    I hadn’t planned on reading The Luminaries as I often find I don’t get along with books that have received a lot of establishment hype, but I bought it on a whim a couple of weeks ago. This is the second review I’ve read with a similar response to it and from your description, I think I might struggle with it too. I’ve recently come around to the idea of giving up on a book if I’m not enjoying it (something I refused to do on principle in the past), but it seems like such a waste to potentially get through hundreds of pages and not finish. I’ll still be giving it a go, but it’s sliding further down my to be read list…

  30. Marte

    Books I wished I had abandoned:
    Kent – Burial rites
    French – Broken harbour
    Taylor – A game of hide and seek
    Ackerley – My dog Tulip
    Norfolk – John Saturnall’s feast
    Hand – Illyria
    McGregor – If nobody speaks of remarkable things
    Walker – The age of miracles
    Richards – Snake ropes
    di Rollo – Bleakly Hall
    King – The beekeeper’s apprentice
    Torday – The legacy of Hartlepool Hall
    Gardner – The double shadow
    Womersley – Bereft
    Fortes – Waiting for Robert Capa
    Craig – London calling
    Bender – The particular sadness of lemon cake

  31. Your routine of reading and listening sounds more like work than pleasure. If it takes that much effort to get through, there really isn’t much value in the experience. The one much hyped book I abandoned quickly was We Need to talk about Kevin. I gave up on the film too.

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  33. A lot of people have mentioned a bit of a ‘smart arsey’ vibe going on with this one that has made me shy away from picking it up. I think your admissions here will make many a reader feel much less guilty about their own misgivings. Perhaps one to save for a (very) rainy camping holiday this…

  34. Great post. I’ve given up on a few high-profile books and have put them down wondering whether the problem is with the book or me. Either way, I no longer feel compelled to finish something that doesn’t engage me. If I’m not engrossed/intrigued after the first 100 or so pages, I move onto something else. Guilt free!

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  37. Hilary Shepherd

    I fought my way through (it was better than Will Self’s ‘Umbrella’, which I thought was TOTAL reader abuse) feeling much the same as you but determined to keep going. Then felt very cheated when it just
    sort of
    faded
    away at
    the
    end

  38. I finished this book last week (about to post my review of it and thought I’d have a quick reminder of what other people thought of it). I started off enjoying it and ended up a bit meh. I didn’t ever dislike it, but like you say, you never get to know any characters properly, which is frustrating. Also, some of the plot tying up is a bit vague, after the mysteries were laid out so clearly to begin with. I didn’t get the clever clever vibe from it, but I must admit I read it quite quickly, not worrying about sections where I felt a bit lost because I figured (rightly, it turned out) that all would be revealed. I think if I’d found it slow-going I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

    I have a long list of classics that I’ve started and abandoned, including a few Dickens (thought you’d sympathise with that!) and I used to beat myself up about it but these days I am much more comfortable with moving on to one of the other great books out there instead.

  39. I finished the Luminaries because in the past I’ve started a number of books which I hated, but ended up loving. So I struggled on. In this case I also hated it at the end and wished I hadn’t spent so much of my time reading it. In my view it’s clever only for the sake of cleverness. The structure does not advance the story or plot or character development in any way – in my view it undermines all of these. Character motivation is pretty much totally absent. I think that Eleanor Catton writes some beautiful prose, and the setting is the best bit of the novel, but these didn’t make it worth reading over 800 pages.

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