I love doing tags, but for the most part, they invite discussion on the books we had the strongest reactions to; the ones we loved, and the ones we loathed. This means there’s a whole load of books that often fall by the wayside, rarely to be talked about; the awkward in-between reads that we had high hopes for, but which left us feeling underwhelmed. So, in the spirit of something a little different, here are some thoughts on a few reads I found decidedly lukewarm, in spite of all the hype. I didn’t hate any of them, not by a long stretch (I think I gave them all 2 or 3 stars). Rather, they are all essentially the definition of ‘meh’. There is, of course, no offence intended to anyone who adores these books – we can’t love ‘em all.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
If I’m going to be controversial, I might as well start strong, right? This book undoubtedly has its merits, but my major issue with it is the way it is still held up as though it’s the pinnacle of feminist fiction; as though the discussion hasn’t advanced at all in the past 30 years. Firstly, it’s pretty outdated in terms of its lack of intertextuality, with little to no discussion on POC and queer characters. There are many plot threads that go unanswered; scenes that feel tonally jarring (like a single reference to Japanese tourists wandering around this supposedly closed and secretive community that is never mentioned again; and a dry, info-dumpy epilogue that erodes any ambiguity created in the climax); not to mention the obvious shock factor: I didn’t buy the fleeting excuse shoehorned in at the end that they didn’t utilise IVF in the face of a major population crisis because it was ‘irreligious’ – as though married men having sex with other women against their will isn’t? Hmm.
It’s obviously a valuable book that throws up a lot of interesting ideas, and which caused shockwaves upon release. I just wish that publishers and reviewers didn’t constantly fall into the obvious trap of likening it to every and any book with a feminist theme to this day. It earned its place in the feminist canon, but the discussion has to be allowed to move on to new, more nuanced heights.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Power had a lot of hype, and won a string of awards, but it just didn’t work for me, sadly. The focus felt skewed, with a lack of nuance or any fresh take on gender discussion. Its appropriation of cultural norms and like-for-like gender reversals to illustrate its obvious points felt far too simplistic, and neither the plot nor the characters grabbed me, beyond the striking initial concept. Having learned that Alderman was mentored and endorsed by Atwood, perhaps I should have been better prepared to not gel with her style.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
This was billed as the thriller of its time, and to this day, we see nigh on every new crime book described as ‘the successor to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train’. With so much buzz, I went in expecting a dynamic and original take on the genre. What I found was a surprisingly generic thriller, with twists that felt disappointingly predictable. The lead character’s alcoholism seemed, at first, like a unique and interesting perspective, but soon became a convenient plot device, with Hawkins able to draw out the mystery by having her heroine black out and forget any key information she wanted. Again, it wasn’t bad, I just couldn’t see why it was being elevated above its peers.
Lullaby by Leїla Slimani
Lullaby has such a brilliantly sinister concept, and opens with a powerful gut-punch. From there, I felt it floundered, and failed to capitalise on its amazing potential. We open in the wake of a double murder, where two children have been killed by their nanny. We then go back, presumably to explore the events that could lead to such a desperate and horrific act. However, nothing really happens. None of the events preceding the murder feel convincing enough to explain why she did it, nor to properly examine her psyche. Nor do we go forward in time to explore the anguish of the aftermath. As such, the book essentially lives and dies by a fantastic concept it fails to live up to.
The Widow by Fiona Barton
This was one of those aforementioned crime books, hyped as ‘the next big hit for fans of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train’. Like a chump, I fell for it again. My trouble with The Widow is that it spells out the obvious outcome that everyone assumes is what happened, and then… that’s exactly what did happen. There are no big twists, no clever reveals. It simply spends 300+ pages confirming everything you, and the characters, suspected right from the start. Harsh as it sounds, I couldn’t help but wonder what the point was.
There we have it; some underwhelming reads. I’d be intrigued to hear what books you expected to love but found lukewarm.