The books we read (versus the books we expect to read)

Hands up, who’s failed to read a literary “must”? You know the one, the book with the gold-plated reviews, the one with its own stand in the bookshop window, the one that won the thingy.

I’m reading WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver. The story:  via a series of letters to her ex, a mother works through her grief and guilt over her son’s killing spree in a US school — and it’s good. I know it’s good. It won the 2005 Orange Prize. My pals are telling me that, while I might not “enjoy it” (subject matter, etc), I will admire it.

I love a good literary classic, something well crafted, chewy, dense… I’m a stay-at-home-yet-working-freelance mum who clings to the international news as an evening lifeline thrown across my nappy-shack, hauling me into the world of adult politics and surmise. KEVIN is fiction, but there have been similar cases. Also, I studied psychology — I’m interested in the darker sides of the human psyche. It sounds like The Book For Me.

I bought it for myself as a treat, I’ve been reading it for exactly six months, and I’ve just passed page 100.

It is good. Possibly, for me, slightly too self-conscious (although with such an introverted format and dire subject matter, I suppose cerebral claustrophobia is part of the reading experience…) but the writing’s good and I’m hooked enough to want to finish it. So how come I’m picking up a lot of other books and galloping through them, while KEVIN waits on my bedside table, gathering dust and, in a sticky stroke of irony, a layer of “well done” stickers from school?

Other books that I have read since first picking up KEVIN include Vanessa Gebbie’s THE COWARD’S TALE, Alison Wells’ HOUSEWIFE WITH A HALF-LIFE, numerous anthologies, and more kids’ books than you can count. A pattern’s emerging: almost all my reading this year has been focused around either my children’s bedtimes, or my blog interviews and posts.

I no longer have time to read for fun, and KEVIN isn’t really a book to rush.

Yesterday, I picked up THE ANGEL AT NO. 33 by Polly Williams because my husband gave me a stack of books for Christmas and it seemed churlish to have read none of them. Many were scientists’ biographies or extended philosophical musings, but in their midst was a bright turquoise paperback which, truth be told, looked like it could be devoured in one sitting.

The first few pages gave me that dreaded ‘what’s so special about this?’ feel (story: a thirty-something mum dies and her friends, husband and son have to cope — and/or copulate — while she watches from the ether). The storyline is THE LOVELY BONES minus the murder, while the characters and love story are all BRIDGET JONES. The writing is contemporary, sassy, easy, light… the characters are more cake than heartbreak and the husband is sexy (although we ‘get’ that he has dark eyes, ok — we don’t need to be told quite so many times…)

However, after the initial ‘meh’, I found myself zooming past page 50, 75, 100… I overtook my progress with KEVIN in a matter of hours because ANGEL is one easy read — easy as in fluid, simple… elegantly simple…  The characters became my friends. OK, I’ll admit that it’s easy for me, I lived in London for a delicious decade, my best friend lived in Muswell Hill, I’m a mother of boys, and my husband is tall, stubbly, and has very dark eyes — plus, you know, pain au chocolat

Thing is, THE ANGEL AT NO. 33 is bloody good fun.

Would I buy it for a friend? Yes, because it really is good fun. Will I buy another of her books? Yes, because I like fun. I like London, Sancerre, and highlights that go green in swimming pools (hair issues do happen). I am a busy, tired, working mum of three, sometimes I don’t want to dissect my maternal psyche or the istigkeit of good grammar — sometimes I want to stick my face in a cake and kick back — read a book without taking notes.

ANGEL didn’t require me to do anything other than enjoy it. I could loll around, remembering old times with my friend J, her kitchen in Muswell Hill, and the champagne that she siphoned into me three minutes before my wedding as I struggled (with a cauliflower-sized clump of loo roll) to scrub a burgundy-plum lipstick print off the skirt of my pale cream wedding dress (shoulda put the lippy on last, eh).

Polly Williams has just given me a bloody fabulous, enjoyable night in, and she’s reminded me how much I love reading — not just for the mind-expanding, philosophy-changing insights from the depths of the literary pond, but also to remind me of Sancerre hangovers and old friends.

I did read it in one sitting and it relaxed me so much, I’ve spent today pottering around in slow motion, chilling out, ordering wine. I might have another night in tonight — I might even have another go at WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN.

I understand it’s very good.


  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Well done for being brave enough to admit it – something I’m sure we’ve all done (in secret). I was once stuck for longer than expected at my parents’ house and had finished all my own books. Did I read any of my father’s worthy biographies of even worthier people or some fascinating history books? No, I found my old copies of the Chalet School series and devoured those instead.

    • tu says:

      Hi Marina, thanks for your comment. I know what you mean, but I’m not sure I’ve really admitted anything; I think in writing circles, we focus on the quality of writing as defined by genre (chick lit vs. literary, etc) because, as writers, we have to know what we’re generating — but we also have to consider readers with busy lives and to be honest, I’m starting to believe that there’s as much skill in writing simply as there is in writing beautifully (the subject of another blog post, maybe). I used to devour books the size of bricks on a weekly basis, but since the birth of my third child, that’s no longer practical, and won’t be for another year or two (hang on in there, Wolf Hall, I haven’t forgotten you…). Meanwhile, a book that provides accessible enjoyment and escapism is a (very) valuable Mummy tool, I reckon!

  2. Rachel says:

    I started reading We Need to Talk About Kevin last year and stopped reading it in a very similar way. A lot of authors find this sort of comment insulting but it’s not. It just wasn’t for me at the time. I still intend to go back to it. Sometimes the speed and style of a story doesn’t suit the way you feel.
    There are plenty of literary “Classics” that in the past I felt I SHOULD have read and yet haven’t for one reason or another. Sometimes I find the discussions amongst prolific “Classics” readers rather exhausting. As for prize-winning “Musts” Hmmm… I think too many books get read just because they are advertised by prizes and the media. The pressure to read them and find them as good as the judges did is often too great. I like to wait for things to cool down.

  3. ajgracesmith says:

    Books I have resisted reading, simply because everyone was reading them: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, everything by Louis de Berniere, everything by Sebastian Faulks… I could go on, but I won’t. Life’s too short to read everything that’s out there, so instead of reading something because everyone and the broadsheet reviews are telling me to, I’ll read, and champion, the books that I WANT to read. And that’s why, much as I love Lionel Shriver’s writing, I won’t be reading We Need To Talk About Kevin. But hats off to you!

    • tu says:

      I agree that I wouldn’t read a book based on popular demand/hype, but I’m not sure I’d avoid it, either. I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin at the same time as most of my friends, and rave reviews were flying — but I thought the Corelli character was such a damp sack, he spoilt my enjoyment of the book. Still, I enjoyed Louis de Bernière’s writing, so I read Birds Without Wings which was beautiful. I’m not sorry I read either.

  4. Do you think it’s possible the Kevin book isn’t actually so very brilliant? That it doesn’t necessarily deserve its reputation? I have read it and I did enjoy it, but not without reservation. I think it IS too self-conscious and the writing generally too pleased with itself. Sometimes I think you don’t get through a book like that, not because it’s too cerebral for whatever mood you’re in, but simply because it falls short on other levels.
    I have recently had to give up on Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Stranger’s Child’. I loved ‘Line of Beauty’ and I can recognise a degree of quality in this latest book. But the fact is I just couldn’t progress with it. When I read a review by someone who thought some of the intensely crafted prose was simply nonsensical, I felt hugely relieved and justified in putting it down.
    It is possible for a book to be literary, and even challenging, and yet something you devour as fast as you can. An author’s most basic remit is to make the reader turn the page and if a book fails to do that maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to blame the reader.

      • I agree Mike, it is a rather meaningless saying in that certain writers are never going to appeal to certain readers. My point is simply that if this is ‘your kind of book’ and it doesn’t engage you, don’t assume the literati who applauded it know better.

      • Mike Clarke says:

        I sometimes get comments on my writing like ‘it had me turning the pages but then reservations about the length. It’s like people absorb ‘rules’ on creative writing courses.

    • tu says:

      Hi Claudia and Mike, thanks for your comments. I’ve not yet finished KEVIN so I won’t judge it; I’m anticipating enjoying it and since I’m due for a few days away soon, will take it with me and give it all due attention.

  5. Diana Stevan says:

    My, you’re a lovely writer. I’ll have to come back for more. I enjoyed this post, as it is so true. I try to read the “classics” and the “prize winners” at times, but they’re not always the best read. I, too, have a background in psychology and sociology, and like you, am interested in books that illuminate the human condition, but having said that, I’m no longer interested in slogging through books that require a lot of work and time to understand. And also like you, it’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I can put a book down if it doesn’t speak to me or keep me turning that page. I used to think I had to finish it. Thankfully, I no longer feel that.

    • tu says:

      Well thank you, what kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. One of the things I like best about writing, in stories particularly, is its ability to speak differently to different readers, or at different times. I rarely discount a book or throw one out, in case returning to it at a different time results in a different story.

  6. paulaacton says:

    There is a point in We need to talk about kevin where is does seem to become a little hard going all I can say is persevere that pace soon picks up until you start to find it hard to put down and at the end I guarentee you will find yourself almost ready to read it through again with the knowledge of how the book ends.

    • tu says:

      Thanks Paula, that’s really helpful and interesting. I have now passed the point where Kevin is born and it’s picked up a lot — quite a change of pace already.

  7. Highly praised books that I read for class always made me feel tired, particularly history and theatre. They were great reads, and I did feel satisfied in the end. On the other hand, taking on All Quiet on the Western Front or The Duchess of Malfi in 1-5 days was overwhelming, much less enjoyable than Stephanie Plum. I too would have read each one at a much slower pace, because the subject content and themes are a lot more complex.

    I’m currently on page 208 in the Mapp & Lucia series, and it’s already been a month. Not because I don’t love the story. It’s just that I have to be in a certain mood to read it.

    • tu says:

      I’m afraid I’m like that with most historical novels — I have a couple of Hilary Mantel’s waiting for me to pick up, and I know they’re going to demand concentration (from the gigantic list of characters at the front). I’m sure I’ll enjoy them once I get going.

      • I had to look her up (Hilary Mantel), and those sort of books do look like it would take awhile to get through. I love anything historical myself, so I might check something out from the library. 🙂

  8. Sometimes life is just too short. In the past I struggled through books I thought I should read, Life of Pi, as mentioned in a comment above, being one of them. All I felt at the last page was a huge sense of relief, now I just don’t bother.

    And don’t expect to find any more time in your day for reading as your youngest grows, they will still consume as much of your time just in different ways. If you are lucky enough to be able to work from home when the youngest starts school then you need to schedule your reading time as you do your writing time, preferably during school hours. In the meantime in enjoy their babyhood and toddlerhood, in the blink of eye they become teenagers.

  9. rebeccaemin says:

    I like a bit of light hearted easy-reading when I do get the chance to read. I wonder, if it’s taken 6 months to get to page 100, is ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ really the book for you? It’s on my to-read pile, yet somehow I keep skipping past it too.

    • tu says:

      I’ve taken off my “reading for fun” hat and have donned my “review” hat — so I’m now over half way through and it does pick up. I think I owe it a blog post after the somewhat spartan comments above so I will finish the read and put a full review up — for what my opinion’s worth.

  10. Ethel Rohan says:

    And I’ll chime in here too because I also have a copy of WNTTAK that’s sat on my bedside locker for a couple of years now (?) and I haven’t yet gotten any further than a third of the way in–I always abandon the book to read something else. I think that’s the downside to hype: I came to the work with my expectations too high and despite its skill and strengths it’s not gripping me in the way I’d hoped.

    • tu says:

      Hi Ethel, I know what you mean. I don’t think I was unduly affected by the hype, but on reading, I thought the author was trying very hard to be clever, to write intelligently — and succeeding, hell, she has a vocabulary! — which made it all the more disappointing when I found the main character difficult to believe. Everyone’s asking, is she a good mother, or a bad mother? I’m reading it, and I’m not seeing mother — it doesn’t feel right (what mother does not smell her baby’s head, screams or no screams? No mention of scents, the feel of the child, nothing…) and yet I love her as a wife (warts and all, she feels real). Again not so much as a traveller (don’t read what she said about the Irish) — her summary of Africa is dismal, all wit and no soul. And yet… it is in other ways a good read, some of her insights are startling and yet familiar — about life, adults… just not about babies. I’ll review the thing, for what my opinion’s worth, I owe it a fair trial.

  11. Mike Clarke says:

    What seems interesting about We Need to Talk About Kevin is that the consensus view is that it doesn’t seem to take off until some way into the book (I’ve not read it myself). I keep getting it hammered in on creative writing courses that if you submit a book to a publisher or agent that doesn’t immediately grab the attention then you’ve done something dreadfully wrong because scene setting and introducing supporting information is an old-fashioned indulgence.

    It was Lionel Shriver’s seventh published novel so perhaps she was allowed to structure the book like that and, in doing so, she won the Orange prize. It’s an interesting question as to how much the author needs to hook the reader straight away as opposed to the effect of making the reader wait for the pay-off.

    • tu says:

      Interesting thoughts… I’m not sure how it works for all books, but KEVIN has a hell of a hook in the blurb, and the prelude to action, while slow and contemplative, is well written. I think I might have enjoyed the luxury of the slow start if I’d been retired or on holiday, able to dedicate myself to its reading with no external demands.
      (Recently, as a weird aside, I read THE HOBBIT, and the descriptive passages were endless; my kids were astonished and even I was taken aback as I’d not remembered it being quite so extended, and yet it’s ‘of its time’. It’s only in recent decades that, perhaps, we’ve come to favour the more concise storyline — a bit less taffeta, a bit more 40 degree wash… or am I being unkind to the current mode?!)
      To get back on topic, I wouldn’t know whether Shriver won the Orange Prize because of, or despite, the lengthy beginning, but it opens on her narrator’s neurotic pontificating which continues through the story, and that part was well done.

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