For years, I saw this book at the bookstore, in varying stages of on sale, and heard about it or saw it on the bestsellers lists, best books lists, everywhere. It has an amazing book cover. The blurb wasn’t the most exciting thing I’ve ever read but it was intriguing enough. Yet every time I added it to my pile, when it came time to cut down on my way out, it got put to the side.
Months later, it finally made the cut and I took the plunge. After all that waffling, all that buildup, my general reaction is “…okay!” It wasn’t extraordinary, it wasn’t bad, it was okay! I had heard from a friend who hadn’t finished that she was unimpressed and I understand why – if I was reading this in chunks rather than powering through the whole thing one Sunday, I might have lost patience in the first half as well.
I hate when other people compare books to Gone Girl mostly because the comparisons are so often surface level, just an unreliable narrator or a general alignment with “chick noir” (ugh). (I know I just did this for The Darkest Secret – allow me this hypocrisy.) This, despite not being suspense and not featuring murder, had a sort of caesura halfway through just like Gone Girl where we realize Mathilde isn’t what she seemed, and it’s thrilling. The book finally comes alive with that turn, and suddenly it was good. (Another thing it’s extremely similar to is The Wife, down to the wife writing the stuff and not getting credit.)
This book does some things exceedingly well: it has some beautiful, chilling – if unsubtle – parallels between the two sections (both Lotto and Mathilde say they want to swallow each other whole, both the drama teacher and Mathilde use oral sex to shut Lotto up when he cries), plus a nice thread that runs along with Antigone, caged, like Mathilde is in her marriage. Lotto’s slow transition from suave charmer to total asshole is more subtle than one might expect, and fascinating, as is Mathilde’s reveal (in this way very different from Gone Girl, as it wasn’t meant to be explosive). The little lies that stubbornly reveal themselves are both heartbreaking and satisfying, as the myth of their marriage collapses. (It became obvious somewhere in the middle of Mathilde’s section, before she says it explicitly, that she did not say yes to his marriage proposal, but reading the scene where she tells the story still had an impact.)
My enjoyment of it depended totally on the circumstances in which I read it.
There are some parts that are more troubling: is Groff suggesting that being raped by his drama teacher is what “caused him” to be not-straight? (He’s never labeled as anything so I don’t want to.) Is she honestly suggesting that his having sex with a lot of women means he’s, and I quote, “thoroughly straight?” Lotto’s sexuality isn’t the heart of the book per se but it matters enough that both of these deserved better answers.
I know this book was some kind of literary sensation. Somehow reviews led me to believe that it was extremely ambitious, that it could have toppled or fallen apart but didn’t, whatever. That’s the part I really didn’t see. It’s a very good portrayal of marriage and lies in the end, but I’ve definitely read other good portrayals of marriage and lies, which often felt like they were trying a little less hard. I don’t think a book needs to be “ambitious” to be good – in fact, so many ambitious books do fall flat under the weight of their goal – but here I didn’t even see that.
What I keep coming back to is that my enjoyment of it depended totally on the circumstances in which I read it. That’s obviously part of the whole reading experience regardless of the book or the quality thereof – we can’t divorce what we feel about anything from how we experienced it – but it feels a little like telling someone “the show gets good after the first season.” By and large (with one major exception: watch STARZ’ Black Sails now available on Hulu) I don’t like telling people that. Or when I do, I understand that many people will say, fuck that, why should I slog through six hours to get to the good part. In the end, I happened to binge this book, as it were, but that doesn’t mean the slog was any better, just over faster than it would have been, and thus harder to notice.