Destiny and Desire

I’m afraid I have another negative review to write, and in this case, it’s a book I couldn’t finish. I made it about 160 pages out of over 400 into Carlos Fuentes’s new novel Destiny and Desire (which I won from Goodreads) and decided to call it quits. I’m not one to abandon books often or easily, and I really wanted to finish this one, to see if the pace would ever pick up or if my interest would sharpen, but during the last ten or twenty pages, I was beginning to positively hate the book, so it was time to stop.

This is another case, like the novel The Illumination I wrote about yesterday, of not liking a book I’ve read only positive reviews of. The New York Times, for one, reviewed it glowingly last week. My problems with it, though, were multiple. Part of it is that the book struck me as very unfriendly toward women. It’s about two young men growing up in Mexico City, attending school, having intense philosophical debates, reading books together (that’s what I read about anyway — the plot was soon to take them in other directions), and all that’s fine, but their friendship as they grow up is more and more built on bonding through degrading women. The women characters were either sex objects or evil, nasty parents and guardians. I didn’t hold out much hope that this would change.

The other problem was that I did not enjoy the writing, which struck me as overblown and ponderous. There were a few too many passages like this one, which comes from the first page; it starts off fine with some nice images, but takes a turn for the worse:

The Pacific really is a tranquil ocean now, as white as a large basin of milk. The waves have warned it that earth is approaching. I try to measure the distance between two waves. Or is it time that separates them, not distance? Answering this question would solve my own mystery. The ocean is undrinkable, but it drinks us. Its softness is a thousand times greater than earth’s. But we hear only the echo, not the voice of the sea. If the sea were to shout, we would all be deaf. And if the sea were to stop, we would all be dead.

Okay, the last two lines are fine, too, but I don’t know how “answering this question would solve my own mystery.” It’s the kind of vague sentence that drives me nuts, and the book was full of similarly vague sentences. The novel is narrated by one of the two main characters, and he’s altogether too satisfied with himself to be enjoyable company.

The novel has an interesting conceit: the first-person narrator is actually dead — he’s a severed head washed up on the beach. We learn he is twenty-seven at his death, so the novel, as far as I can see, is supposed to tell the story of what led to such a gruesome end. I can see that this book is supposed to say something about Mexican society and politics, and I’m sure that if I could have gotten into the story, that would have been interesting. But it’s not for me to find out.

So, clearly, I am not the best reader for this book. I’m curious if others have read Fuentes before and liked any of his books. Are there ones I might like better, particularly short ones? And now that I’ve written such bad things about this book, would anyone like my copy? Such a generous offer! You very well might like it better than I did, though. Just let me know; the first person to express interest gets it.

15 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

15 responses to “Destiny and Desire

  1. Tough to read two books in a row which did nothing for you.

  2. He isn’t a writer I’ve come across and after what you’ve said, and even more so, after what you’ve quoted I’m not offering myself up for sacrifice as a trial reader. I’m afraid even the imagery in that first paragraph didn’t do it for me. Pretentious was the word that came to mind straight away. Definitely not for me.

  3. This is exactly how I felt about The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It seemed everyone else thought it was a masterpiece. To use your words, I found it “overblown” and “ponderous” and I didn’t see Shakespeare in it at all…not one drop. I did finish it, but it wasn’t easy, and I regret the time I spent. Having said that, I seem to be alone on the planet in my feelings for it.

  4. With so many things to read, I think I can take a pass on the degradation of women and severed heads for now. This type of experience has been my own more than a few times like with the Carlos Ruiz Zafon books or Sawtelle or any number of those books on the Tournament of Books list this year for that matter. Sometimes think that the conflation of merit and popularity has seeped even into “professional” literary review. I approach every review with caution now.

  5. That quote is disgracefully bad! I haven’t read Fuentes, and, umm, I don’t think I’m about to start any time soon. You’re owed a fabulous book next, Dorothy!

  6. Ugh, that passage definitely strikes me as overblown and sophomoric as well. I’ve come to expect Latin American lit by male authors to have some degree of misogyny (at least, it’s a pleasant surprise when it doesn’t), but I still need some balancing merits to even out the equation if I’m going to stick with a book for the long haul…doesn’t sound like there were many of those in the first section of this novel.

  7. Too bad about this one. I’ve not read any Fuentes, so I can’t suggest a better one that might work for you. But I agree that with so many other books out there that would be a better fit, it’s sometimes a good idea to stop reading one and choose something else!

  8. This would not be my cup of tea either, both on account of degraded women and the provided sample. That is a relief because had the writing been fantastic I still would have had to reject the book on account of it being demeaning to women. Life’s too short.

  9. Frances’ first sentence sums it up for me. When I read overblown passages like your sample, I usually assume that it’s my underappreciation of what others call “good literature” that’s the problem, and soldier on. But I draw the line at “demeaning to women,” and at that point the book gets thrown across the room!

  10. I’m sorry to learn of your bad experience, Dorothy. I haven’t read the books you mentioned, but I could relate because I faced a similar situation with a film I watched recently, “Somewhere”. It came with high critical acclaim but I just did not enjoy it at all.

    I have a quote to share with you: “Pay no attention to what the critics say… Remember, a statue has never been set up in honor of a critic.” — Jean Sibelius

    But of course, that’s fine as long as we don’t become critics ourselves. ;)

  11. Too bad, two books in a row you didn’t like. I hope you are currently in the middle of something mindblowingly fabulous. I have n ot read Fuentes before and now I’m not sure I’ll ever want to.

  12. Mystica — yes, it is! I’m due for a good book. Actually I have a very positive review to write, when I get around to it.

    Annie — pretentious is an excellent word for it. I don’t blame you for not wanting to read him now! I’m a little curious if all his writing is like this, but I doubt it’s worth the time to find out.

    Grad — well, I liked Edgar Sawtelle, but I can see why others might not. And I don’t think you’re alone in that feeling at all! I’ve heard of quite a few people who didn’t like it much.

    Frances — it’s probably hard not to be influenced by a book’s popularity; I have to work hard to keep from being influenced myself, I know. I think it makes sense to read reviews with lots of caution, and more so the less you know the reviewer. I like that with blog reviews you can come to trust the reviewer over time.

    Litlove — well, I was in the middle of reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed, and that offered a very nice respite from Fuentes! :) I’m glad you agree with me about the quote.

    Emily — no, there weren’t. I would have stuck with it if the writing weren’t so hard to get through, and there weren’t quite so many pages left. But when I find myself not wanting to read because I don’t want to read a particular book, then it’s time to stop!

    Danielle — yes, and I have so many other books I want and need to be reading right now. I couldn’t handle the thought of another week or so of dragging myself through that book. Long books are fine, as long as they don’t drag like this one did.

    Lilian — life’s too short, exactly. I was ready to try something new by an unfamiliar author, and I did give it a good try, but I wasn’t won over, so it was time to stop.

    Debby — I’m sure there are people out there who can appreciate the writing in this book (the New York Times reviewer, for example), but I have a hard time imagining it! It’s easy, as you say, to think I’m just not getting what other people would get, but this time, I was hating it so much, I didn’t care!

    Arti — well, I suppose I have been a critic, having published literary criticism and reviews, but I have no need at all for a statue of me! :) The quote is very good to remember.

    Stefanie — I’m not in the middle of something fabulous now, but at least I’m done with that book, so life is much better :)

  13. Heheh. I love the way that you’ve approached the idea of offering up your not-so-beloved copy to a hopefully-more-loving home. (I’m not saying that you should have loved it, but I do like to think that a book finds its “proper” reader! I’ve had his Old Gringo on my shelves for years, but am not sure what would nudge that one up my TBR list either.)

  14. Buried — no one has taken me up on it! I wonder why :) I’ll have to give it away to a library book sale or something. Too bad, because it’s a very nice-looking hardcover, and I got it for free. I’ll find somebody eventually who really wants it.

  15. bookgazing

    I think we have similar tastes in what we don’t like. Overblown and not exactly generous to women seem to be the things that stop me from being able to continue with books, but to the professional reviewers they seem small faults that don’t compromise a book. The concept of a character who is dead has been done and done, but this sounded so interesting because it’s the first book I can think of where only part of the dead narrator turns up. Shame that papargraph you quoted has put me right off.

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