Any prize has hits and misses. Yesterday, I talked about my favorite winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so today let’s do the opposite. Will the new winner, crowned on April 15, be among the former or the latter? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler (1989)
This novel has the reader join Ira and Maggie, who have been married a long time and have grown children, on a road trip to attend a funeral. I get that this is supposed to be a deep dive into an elderly couple and the compromises they made in order to live an orderly life, but in practice this is just roughly three hundred pages of old people arguing with each other and getting on each other’s nerves. It’s like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? reimagined as a TV movie for The Hallmark Channel. Maggie is meant to be an endearingly dotty meddler who tends to make things worse rather than better, but her choices and actions are so confounding that I could never feel on her side at all. I found her just as exasperating as her grumpy husband.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (2014)
I know Donna Tartt has many ride-or-die fans, but every time this book comes up I feel like people just gush about her other books, The Little Friend or, especially, The Secret History. I’ve yet to meet someone who actually loved this book. Being honest, I DNF’ed this book halfway through because I just wasn’t enjoying anything about it and it was turning into a terrific slog. It’s about Theo, who loses his mother in a terrorist attack in a museum in the beginning and who inexplicably steals the titular painting on his way out of the rubble. Why they ended up in the museum in the first place never made sense to me except to jumpstart the narrative and send Theo on a series of increasingly unrealistic (and irritating) adventures like a sort of coming-of-age Odysseus.
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016)
The jacket copy of The Sympathizer boldy promises to redefine how the reader thinks about the Vietnam War in telling the story of a Communist spy from Vietnam who has been embedded among his exiled countrymen. Not only is he caught between the Communists he remains loyal to and the nationalists he lives with every day (and whom he has befriended over time), but he finds himself torn between the country where he was raised and the United States, where he lives now. That could have been fascinating, but I found the narrator to be so passive that it’s difficult to understand him or even to relate to him. I also really didn’t like the way the plot meanders with no apparent purpose–even taking a lengthy detour into Hollywood for no reason other than to show the exaggerated way Vietnam and its people have been depicted by Americans. On top of that, I felt alienated by Nguyen’s flowery and oddly sexualized prose.
March, by Geraldine Brooks (2006)
I don’t think there was anything terribly objectionable or infuriating about this book, but I honestly don’t know because this novel has completely faded from my memory. All I remember is that it’s the story from Little Women, but told from the point of view of the March girl’s father as he fights in the Civil War. The details are completely lost to me, and have been pretty much from the moment I finished the book.
The Hours, by Michael Cunningham (1999)
I might be a touch unfair to this book, and it’s very possible that it would benefit from a reread since I was only about nineteen or twenty when I read this. It’s sort of like a love letter to Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. It’s divided into three sections: one about Virginia Woolf herself, one about a modern-day version of Mrs. Dalloway, and one featuring a depressed woman in the 1950s who is reading Mrs. Dalloway. And while I do tend to love a twist on a classic, this one feels impenetrable to anyone unfamiliar with the source material.
The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx (1994)
I usually enjoy Annie Proulx, but I couldn’t really get on board with this one. A lot of that comes down to the main character, Quoyle, who is extremely milquetoast. Even though his life is falling apart and the book follows him as he rebuilds and discovers his own agency, I never felt that I could get behind him or like he was particularly interesting. And while Proulx has dabbled in elements of magical realism or at least the fantastic, in The Shipping News it felt jarring and out of place to me–although I did really enjoy her depiction of Newfoundland.