When Do You Give Up on a Well-Written, Terrible Book?

I just finished Centuries of June which I had to force myself to read, so I am embarrassed to tell you that not only did I finish it, it sucked clear through to the end. I don’t know if I thought that the ending was going to be so much more amazing than everything that had come before that it would make the rest of the book look good in retrospect or if it would turn out to be a giant metaphor for America or… I don’t know. Something.

But no. Here’s the whole plot of the book. Man makes women suffer. Every one of them, except one, is basically good and decent and he dicks them over, but sometimes not even in ways that really appear to be his fault. And yet, in the context of the book, we’re certainly supposed to understand him as being at fault. So, on they go to their having-been-dicked-over-by-him-ness and he flits from one woman to the next.

And then at the end, he’s the one who gets comforted and enlightened.

So, yes, read about a lot of women having sad lives and sometimes dying, just so that the narrator can be comforted and enlightened.

Keith Donohue is a really good writer, though, so it’s hard to believe, with as good as the prose is, that the book sucks as much as it does. I just kept thinking, well, maybe after this next part… And the women are really memorable, but ugh. It’s just one bit of despair after another with not real outlet for grief.

So, even though it was obvious that it was just going to be one shitty life after another for the women, I kept reading, lured on by the beautiful writing, figuring there had to be some amazing pay off.

There is not.

Why did I keep reading? Because I am an idiot.

16 thoughts on “When Do You Give Up on a Well-Written, Terrible Book?

  1. Well, if you’re me and the book is _The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon_, the answer is “about 15 minutes ago.”

    IAS, this time it was a real tug of war because his skill kept me hoping that his storytelling would step up to his wordsmithing. It’s easy to give up when both are bad. But when one is really good you just want something to come of it.

  2. Man, that was me and “The Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai. It was absolutely gorgeous writing, the turns of phrase were so magical and evocative… but the story did nothing for me and I couldn’t get invested in the characters.

    And yet, still read it through to the end. I can’t stand the not knowing!

    I am really enjoying the Short Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at the moment.

  3. Yeah, i read through to the end of this book, too. Just thinking that a guy this talented might be able to salvage the dullness. But no, literally, the more I think about this book, the angrier I get at how stupid it is.

  4. This was me and Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence. His writing/research/themes and even some of the characters were so very good, but the actual book wasn’t (for me, anyhow). I wanted to love it and wound up giving it up as a bad job about 3/4s of the way through.

  5. I’ve decided that there’s too many good books out there that I don’t have time to read so if I’m not hooked by a couple of chapters in, I’m done.

    The ‘Pecuiliar Children’ book has made it’s way to me via interlibrary loan so it’s next on my fiction list.

  6. I’m in the middle of this award winning book by a local author. I think you might be able to figure out what I am talking about – if not, well…

    The text is fluffy and flowy. The author spends time describing things to the hilt. But she keeps going on and on of the beauty and talent of this one character and how people fawn all over her and I am to the point of “enough already! we get it!” – if I was not so damn goal oriented in personality I’d return that book to the person that lent it to me.

    Unless one of you gives me permission. That would be good.

  7. It’s like a compulsion with me. I can usually tell in 100 pages or less if a book isn’t going to be good for me, but once I get that far it’s hard to stop. I don’t really want to waste time on books I don’t love. But it’s like I need to be satisfied that it was bad to the end and that I really didn’t like it and am justified in not liking it. Or some times I’m just too optimistic that the author can pull it together. One exception for me was ‘At Swim Two Boys,’ I stopped 2/3rdsthe way through when the positive thing the narrator longed for happened. Given the overall tone of the book it as clear that the last third couldn’t possibly be anything but more miserable and sad and so I stopped the story before it got that way. I don’t regret it at all. I wish bad books more often provided me with ways to make them more likeable like that.

  8. I just had to put down a well-reviewed book by a talented author I’ve read before and enjoyed. It just wasn’t working for me and I kept finding other things to do instead of reading it (always a bad sign). But this represents real progress for me, I used to stick them out until the bitter end, whereupon I’d heave them at walls in digust.

    But, B, thank you for recommending Claire De Witt and the City of The Dead. THAT was a good book! (Though I must quibble that her naming the dead guy in a murder mystery “Vic Willing” nearly made me scream.)

  9. Beth, if it’s either of the people I think it could be, I think everyone just pretends to have read their books.

    Crackerjackheart, I thought that was supposed to be a strange comedy, like an Irish CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. I’m glad you straightened me out on that.

    Jess, I’m embarrassed to say that I did not notice the significance of his name until you mentioned it.

  10. I picked up :”A Visit from the Goon Squad” on my way out of BNA and just about finished in on my return flight this morning. I already want to start over at the beginning as soon as I finish. But I’m wondering if that’s partly because I think I hate the last chapter and want to go back to the really good ones that lead up to it.

  11. think I’m sort of refusing to read it as a story of redemption, regardless of what the back cover says

    and at least the shifting perspectives and multiple peripheral characters appearing to play more central roles provides ample opportunity to pick and choose moments and persons to relate to

  12. I loved Goon Squad, and I ran right back to the start and reread a bunch of it when I finished. But it got to me where I live, emotionally. A hit, a very palpable hit.

    Didn’t see it as a redemption, though. Not sure where that’s coming from.

  13. Oh B, you have to read that soon so we can chat about it. It really did get to me. But I predict you’ll hate the last chapter even more than me. Or, you’ll find it utterly hilarious.

    Jess, the back cover blurb of m anchor books paperback ends with describing it as “a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.”

  14. That is a flat out weird blurb, Professor. I read the book months ago, admittedly, but I can’t remember anyone being “redeemed” at the end. Unless they mean simply surviving the afore-mentioned self-destruction counts as redemption.

    Without getting spoilery, I found it much more interesting that the main characters all did things, and then years passed, and then they were shown as having lived with the consequences (many of which were really, phenomenally ugly). And some of them went on to do different things later, have second and third and fourth acts in their long, varied lives. But that’s not redemption, it’s just the kind of adaptation and resilience and reshuffling that happens to anyone who lives long enough. Which is (I know, I’m Captain Obvious) the damn THEME of the whole novel.

    So, um, yeah. Weird blurb.

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