A reading pickle: Despising the characters, intrigued by the story
This week’s reading pickle began when I checked Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows out of the library. It’s one of those books billed as a “literary thriller,” which usually have something to do with antiquarian books and a literary celebrity.
In this case, the main plot mover is the (possible) discovery of the world’s only extant Shakespeare manuscript. As hackneyed as the lost-Shakespeare-manuscript construct is, I was willing to along with it because I’m a sucker for bookish mysteries. (Seriously. It’s an on-going problem in my reading life.)
So I started in on The Book of Air and Shadows vaguely hopeful. However, about 150 pages in (of 466), I sat up and realized I found pretty much every single character detestable. First, there was the womanizing, self-important intellectual property lawyer who narrates part of the story in the first person. He is often distracted from the story at hand by retelling his sexual conquests, humblebragging about how much money he has, and bemoaning how he dislikes his own children.
Then there was the two young staffers of the promised antiquarian bookstore who drive the action of another part of the story — one is a stereotype of a damaged, artistic woman who wears black all the time and squats in a loft in Red Hook and the other is a “nice guy” archetype who thinks by forcing his brand of niceness on the woman, she will somehow be happier. Because he, of course, as the man must know best.
And then there’s the seventeenth-century soldier whose letter to his wife starts off this whole business. He is irritating merely because of Gruber’s shoddy attempt at writing in the style of the time in the italicized letters, provided at regular intervals to break up the action of the above characters. The letters are unnecessary, the faux clerk’s hand is grating, and, 150 pages in, the information contained in them is irrelevant.
Despite all this against it, I am still intrigued by what will happen. Even with the horrible characters, there is something twisty and entertaining about The Book of Air and Shadows. My desire to go on might be a symptom of my addiction to bookish mysteries, good or bad, but I still can’t help but want to know what will happen. How does the lawyer connect to the young staffers? And will those dratted letters ever reveal something worthwhile? And how are any of them connected to the undiscovered Shakespeare play? Or are they at all?
Quite the pickle. I’ve never encountered a book where I’ve been so repulsed by the people, but still interested in their story. Usually, the whole is as unappealing as all the parts, rather than certain parts urging me to carry on. Have any of you ever had this problem? And, if so, did you finish the book or just move on?