One of my favorite things about reading a book I don’t like is trying to parse WHY I don’t like it. Especially when a book is wildly popular, especially when I was nonetheless able to finish reading it. Books I can’t finish, I don’t really devote much thought to. I figure it wasn’t a good match, or it wasn’t the right season in my life for the book to resonate. But books I read and actively dislike – those are well worth dissecting my response. I mean, if I read a book cover to cover, that is a successful book, right? It compelled me to keep going. And yet I’m guessing that an author who hears someone read her book but didn’t like it wouldn’t feel very successful. (I know I wouldn’t.) So what it is about a book that is compelling enough to keep me engaged, keep me turning the pages, keep me picking the book up after I’ve set it down… when I have strong, negative feelings about it?
My husband started reading I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid shortly after Christmas. When I finished my first book of the year, he suggested I read it, too. I read it in maybe three days – it was very quick and the writing style was propulsive. I had to know what was going to happen. But, as I’m sure my first paragraph makes clear, I didn’t like the book. (My husband, on the other hand, gives it four out of five stars.)
Mini plot summary: The novel opens with a couple in a car. Narrated by Jake’s girlfriend, who goes unnamed, the story has an eerie, nightmarish quality to it, with everything feeling ominous and slightly off-kilter. The narrator explores her relationship with Jake, and her ambivalence about continuing it… despite the fact that she is on her way to meet his parents for the first time. The meeting with Jake’s parents is unsettling, but what happens after they leave is even worse.
What I enjoyed about this novel: The author, Iain Reid, is masterful when it comes to creating suspense. For a large portion of the novel, nothing substantive happens. For instance, a big chunk of the book takes place in the car, while Jake is driving to his parents’ house. And yet the author is able to evoke such a strong sensation of foreboding that it was impossible not to find out what happened next. Similarly, Reid was adept at making small, innocuous incidents – like the ringing of a phone or a visit to a chicken coop or a Band-Aid on someone’s forehead – into something deeply disturbing. I felt off balance and uncertain and unsettled throughout the book, which is exactly how you want to feel when reading horror.
What I didn’t enjoy about this novel: This is a difficult novel to discuss without spoilers, but I’m going to try. I did not enjoy the climax of this book, the big reveal. Even though it was earned, in some ways – i.e. Reid hinted at the outcome throughout the earlier chapters, and you can go back and read it again and see that he left breadcrumbs along the way – it still felt unbelievable to me. And, worse, it felt like an easy choice. Rather than feeling inevitable and satisfying, like this particular ending was what the story was building to the entire time, it felt flat and uninspired. In my heart of hearts, I had hoped that there was something more interesting, more terrifying, more surprising than what it turned out to be. I closed the book and felt let down and annoyed and that I’d wasted my time.
Also in the less-enjoyable category was the writing style. There was a lot of philosophizing in the book that felt a little heavy-handed to me… but also seemed wildly at odds with the simplistic nature of the prose. I’ve seen comparisons of Reid to Saramago, which is apt: as in Blindness, the prose is spare in such a way as to limit the scope of what the reader can see (or understand), but in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the technique seemed less skillfully deployed. Perhaps I feel that way because I’m not sure what to do with some of the things Reid’s lens did focus on: the Band-Aids on the father’s forehead; The Caller; the easel in the basement; the dead sheep; the skin on the Dairy Queen clerk’s arms; the man in the background of the photograph. These were vivid and memorable because they were specific and concrete in a book that was all about casting a veil of hazy implications and impressions and philosophical questions. But, even though some of these images/events were called back in the end, I am not sure what their real purpose was (other than to create a trail of breadcrumbs to prove the premise, which is what I think they were doing, although not particularly successfully, for me), or why they were important enough to highlight, and I find that irritating as a reader.
As someone who wants to write novels, and therefore to have people read and like her novels, it’s hard for me to dislike a book. If he’s anything like me, Reid agonized over the writing of his novel. He chose each word purposefully and put hours and days and months and years of his time and energy and hope and love into his novel. To dislike the product of someone’s dream and devotion feels heartless and cruel. And yet that’s one of the beautiful things about books, right? That you and I can read the same book and come out of it with completely different experiences and feelings. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s part of what makes life such a rich tapestry. (You see all the trouble I am going to, here, to justify my negative opinion of this book?) (And of course I know my one small opinion doesn’t matter at all to the success of Reid’s book, which is so successful that it is already being adapted for film/TV.)
Should you read this book?: Yes, if you like suspense, you probably should. It is certainly suspenseful. And you might find that you love all the things that I found wanting. At worst, it’s a quick read with a dramatic outcome.