The Reader Change

I mentioned at the end of my last post that I was reading Deanna Raybourn’s A Curious Beginning and not really getting along with it. I stopped wanting to throw it across the room, and I did finish it, but I didn’t love it. The book has plenty of glowing reviews and it reminded me of Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series, which I liked a lot. So why, I wonder, didn’t this work for me? This isn’t a review but just some thoughts about how we (or at least I) change as readers. I’d be curious to hear about how you have/have not changed over your reading life too.

Here are the things that bugged me about this book, even though in theory it’s exactly the kind of thing I like:

  • The heroine, Veronica, is presented (by herself, I guess, as it’s first person) as super special: she’s smart and independent and goes off to exotic places to hunt butterflies and have flings with sexy foreigners. I wouldn’t mind that, but she thinks these qualities make her better than other, ordinary women, who are, for much of the book, presented as stereotypes (the maiden sisters who bring up the illegitimate Veronica, and who only care about gardening, embroidery, and sin; the vicar’s wife who wants to marry Veronica off to a widower with six kids when her guardians die; Salome, the seductive dancer in the circus Veronica spends time with). It was when I heard Veronica had violet eyes that I almost sent the book flying. A heroine can be awesome without being awesome at the expense of other women. This got better when Lady Cordelia was introduced; she’s a brilliant mathematician but stuck in a traditionally feminine maiden aunt role.
  • The hero, Stoker (really?), is a dark, mysterious Byronic figure with a troubled past. This mystery was milked long past the point where I had any patience with or interest in it. I was kind of annoyed he turned out to be from an aristocratic family (clear early in the book) even if he was the black sheep. This background provided a convenient escape hatch a couple of times, because he had Connections.
  • The hints of romance seemed really obviously telegraphed: oh, he’s cranky because he’s jealous! Those bits were very predictable.
  • The circus/freak show. Wow, the fat lady was so fat she needed two chairs, and she ate all the time. The show was run by a conjoined twin whose silent brother communicated through music. I didn’t feel the book really got much beyond late-Victorian attitudes to these characters (“exotic setting!”) and maybe it’s time to stop going there, just like it’s time to stop rewriting colonial settings with Victorian attitudes intact.
  • Aside from a scene set at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee procession, this book could have been set nearly any time Victorianish. I guess that’s not exactly true, because the politics of Irish Home Rule come into it, but really, the book is not interested in the historical background except as it relates to the secret of Veronica’s birth. Which I won’t spoil, but learning it reinforced many of the feelings I just described.

But I have loved dark and mysterious heroes and headstrong adventurous heroines who work together to solve a mystery plenty of times in the past. It’s why I got this from the library. And this book was not bad. So what gives?

Maybe it’s just changing moods. If I’d read it a month ago, or a month from now, perhaps I’d have loved it.

Or maybe it’s a more permanent change of mood. The title of my post is kind of a menopause joke–I’m closing in on 50 and my doctor likes to chat with me about my “second puberty.” Look, I’m not saying “time of life” is the reason I didn’t much enjoy this book, but I’m getting old enough to feel my reading mortality (can I get through my TBR before I die?). So it could be that this book reminded me too much of others I’ve enjoyed–both Lady Julia and, a little, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series–and feeling my time is limited, I don’t want to repeat experiences. On the other hand, there are books I loved in my first puberty and still reread with great pleasure today, from A Wizard of Earthsea to Pride and Prejudice. But (do I have three hands?) I tend to find something new in those books each time I read them, and at least for me, A Curious Beginning didn’t offer anything like that kind of depth. It’s a slick commercial package. Maybe that’s a pleasure I’ve tired of.

Or maybe the problem was that it felt too obviously slick to me. Partly because of blogging and romance conversations, I’ve become more aware of what tropes push my buttons (and I have labels for them, and throw around words like trope and button  when I read). I’ve become more self-conscious about my pleasure reading. So while I was reading this, I kind of felt “I see you behind that curtain lady, really obviously pushing my mysterious-hero/headstrong-heroine/partnership buttons.” And as a result, those buttons didn’t work. I think a book has to sneak up on them. Or maybe some buttons just wear out over time and stop working altogether. That’s OK.  We grow new ones. I certainly haven’t stopped enjoying reading.

Ultimately I can’t explain why I didn’t like A Curious Beginning even though it seemed like it should be just my cup of tea. That mysterious reader-book alchemy didn’t mix into a magical potion.  Right after this I read a mystery with a somewhat similar dynamic between the protagonists, and I couldn’t put it down. Go figure.

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10 Responses to The Reader Change

  1. lawless says:

    can I get through my TBR before I die?

    You and me both.

    I go through reader moods too. I felt similarly (though not as strongly) about the Kate Ross book we group read.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I do think it has something to do with reading a lot more romance. I am not saying romance is “formulaic” but it does tend to have strong structural beats that are similar in a lot of books, and similar physical/emotional “tells” for falling for someone, things like that. And I just notice them more, and notice them AS familiar. I think a lot of what bugged me here were conventions imported from romance, and the mystery was not strong/engaging enough to counter-balance that.

  2. Kaetrin says:

    Part of it, for me, is that I notice things as a reader now that I didn’t notice before. And, those things, once seen, cannot be unseen. What I could blithely ignore because I didn’t know any better (that’s one reason, there are others) I can’t anymore. Some of that is because of me getting older and being a more experienced reader but a lot of it is social interaction about books and culture and politics which has raised my awareness of various things.

    Just this week, I found myself incredibly impatient with an author writing “like a girl” as a perjorative. That’s a thing which would not have occurred to me say, 5 years ago. But now, it’s like it’s in boldface 20 point font and circled in red. And I dislike it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, that’s true. I have become more aware of certain things as a reader. Some of them “political” things, some literary ones. And I am often less willing to read past those things. The pleasure the book offers no longer outweighs them. Or maybe I notice them mostly when the book isn’t offering me enough to enjoy to outweigh them.

  3. Sunita says:

    I wonder if part of it is that we tend to be steered to certain books over others because they get reviewed more and talked about more in our online circles. I don’t know if books are worse or better on the whole than they were 20 years ago, but I know that if I picked a book up back then and it felt derivative or stale, I just put it back down. Now there’s the weight of so many people saying “oh, this is great!” or “oh, this is awful” and it’s hard to avoid having that in your head. I’ve been reading older romances again, and some of them are just as good today as I thought they were when I first read them, while others don’t hold up.

    ” I didn’t feel the book really got much beyond late-Victorian attitudes to these characters (“exotic setting!”) and maybe it’s time to stop going there, just like it’s time to stop rewriting colonial settings with Victorian attitudes intact.”

    This is really the kicker for me now. If someone is writing with the same (in)sensibility I see in older books, I’m out. There are parts of the past that need to stay in the past. I won’t put aside a book from 1970 that does that if it works in other ways, but in 2016 it’s perpetuating stereotypes whose problems many of us fully understand. I saw the excerpt Kaetrin is referring to, and I had a similar reaction: why on earth go there now? What do you gain?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I do read less “alone” now–there are often other voices about the book in my head. I sometimes really regret that, although I love the conversations I’ve had about books online. I think maybe part of what I’ve done is traded some kinds of reading enjoyment for others.

      I am with you on shifting expectations/tastes in historical fiction. I think this is part of why I have struggled to read historical romance lately. I think there are some stories we need to move past, though I am still willing to read the original versions (eg of colonialist adventure) so maybe that makes me a hypocrite.

  4. Oh YES. I’ve certainly felt and seen a change in my reader self too. Given that who WE are is always a work-in-progress, it kind of makes sense that our reading tastes would also waver and move about a bit as we move through life.

    One of my recent discards includes Karen Marie Moning’s newest in her Fever series which made me shudder and go Ughhhh! about 30 pages in. Then again Moning has only deteriorated with each successive book so maybe she’s not the best example.

    Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog was a more interesting experience for me. I found the beginning a bit boring but then it got interesting and sort of funny. Only it got harder and harder to go back to the story after each break in reading. I finally decided to DNF it about 30% in. On paper this has all the elements I would enjoy—Victorian setting, time travelling, obvious literary references, humor, dash of romance. . . but. . . it’s kind of like what you say. I was always very hyper aware of the author and the strings she was pulling from behind the curtain than getting lost in the story (or the writing) itself.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have always thought that a book feels manipulative if somehow it doesn’t work for us–otherwise, we just enjoy the feelings it has manipulated us into having, because all fiction is “manipulative” in some ways. Sometimes it’s a weakness in the book that exposes that manipulation, but sometimes, I think, it’s just some magic that’s missing in an individual reader’s relationship with the book, and that can be almost impossible to explain. What surprised me about my annoyance with this book is that I expected to like it, and it had so many elements I usual do love. Or used to love. Maybe my love for them really is gone. That’s what I was wrestling with in writing this post. It would be a bit sad if I couldn’t love a mysterious brooding hero anymore and they all read like clichés to me. And it would certainly rule out a lot of books.

      • Oh! So that feeling of manipulation is the EFFECT of my non-enjoyment rather than its cause. I didn’t think of it that way but yes that can certainly be true! Which brings us back to square one, I guess. 😛

    • Kaetrin says:

      FWIW, the narrator of To Say Nothing of the Dog is great in the audio version of the book. If you are ever inclined to try again, I’d certainly recommend it. The beginning was a bit baffling to me but once I worked out what was going on I just ended up charmed by the story. (That said, if you have no interest, forget it! Life is too short to read books you’re not into.)

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