The Unbearable Sadness of Historical Novels

This is the last time I pick books at random. Next time I pick up a new novel to read, I will have spent hours on reviews, recommendations, and cross-comparisons. I say this because I’ve recently read two of the worst books ever. By coincidence, they both happened to be historical novels focused on women in the 1920s.

Now, I try not to do too much ranting on this blog, so the reason I wrote this post is as kind of a public service so that other people can avoid these books. And yes, okay I want to rant about them.

East of the Sun by Julia Gregson

east-of-the-sunThis is a book about three women going by ship to India. Rose is a young woman who is going to marry some guy she hardly knows in India. Her friend Victoria or “Tor”, is just happy to accompany her and to be away from her annoying mother. Their chaperone is a slightly more experienced woman called Viva, who only had one love affair, but for some unexplained reason it was terrible, so she doesn’t share many details about it with her charges. Viva is also hiding some other terrible secret about how her whole family died in India. Without spoiling the plot, let me just say that when it’s revealed, it doesn’t seem like it was worth reading the entire 600 page slog for.

So you would think the voyage to India would be exciting, especially since the girls are also accompanied by a teenage boy who is quite rude and a kleptomaniac as well. You would think he at least would do something outrageous like steal everyone’s silverware, but he mostly just mopes around while the girls talk about how freaked out they are about Rose getting married. The one thing this book has that draws you in is great descriptions, but after just pages and pages of them, I got extremely impatient for something to happen. So I skipped to the end of the book, and it wasn’t much better. My recommendation is avoid this book unless you like books in which absolutely nothing happens.

The Paris Wife

pariswifeThe Paris Wife is the kind of novel that makes you want to yell at it. Mostly, you want to yell things like “How could you be so stupid?” or “Oh, your husband is being a jerk? Why don’t you do something about it?” and “Why does Ernest Hemingway come across as such a whiner?”

Maybe I missed the whole point and it’s a novel of literary genius. After all, it takes an amazing feat of penmanship to make one of the most interesting 20th century writers seem really boring and ordinary. And of course, his wife and all his literary friends are even more boring than he is in this strange alternate universe that Paula McLain has created.

As with the other terrible book, I kept waiting for the interesting part to start, for someone to say something witty or shocking as those modernist writers and flappers tended to do, but no such luck! Instead, Hemingway just whines to his wife a lot and they try to meet “interesting” literary people, but having had the experience of East of the Sun, I got smart enough not to read the whole thing to its completion.

I’d much rather just read a book by Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald instead. Sometimes books by dead white guys are the most reliable. That being said, I would still love to see some feminist revisionist stuff from a woman’s perspective, just something that doesn’t suck, so if you have any recommendations, please post them in the comments.


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