Un-put-downable books

So what do you do when you are reading two books neither of which you can put down?  I can’t exactly read them both at the same time.  I’m stuck going back and forth between them. But that’s not at all a bad way to spend a weekend.

The first one is Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, which I’m already over half way through.  The plot starts off at a fast pace, and I’m dying to know how it all turns out, but, as is usual for me, it’s not just the plot that captures my attention — I want to know more about the characters.  The book fulfills that desire too; the second section retells the events of the first, but from another character’s viewpoint, so while the plot itself isn’t the interest here, the different interpretations each character has of what’s going on is.  I love the way this technique allows you to see how little the facts of a situation matter — what matters is your interpretation, the sense you make of those facts.  It’s a little disturbing at the same time, though, because it makes you realize how little solid ground of certainty any of us have to stand on.

The other book is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, a book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, the legends that surround both of them, and the way biographies have created those legends.  Litlove recently wrote a beautiful review of this book, which was one of the reasons I picked it up, and the other is that I’ve had my eye on Malcolm’s books for years, since they seemed to be the sort of nonfiction I like best — the uncategorizeable sort.  I have now determined that I need to read every book she has written; Malcolm is someone I will like no matter what she writes about.

The book has lots of information on Plath and Hughes, but mainly it’s about the afterlife of Plath and the sort of life-in-death experiences Hughes has had after her suicide.  It tells the stories behind the memoirs and biographies that have appeared, and the wars that advocates of Plath and those of Hughes have waged with each other over how to interpret their relationship.  It tells about Malcolm’s own experiences researching her subjects, and it also advances an argument about biography itself.

Both of these books, I’m realizing now, have much to say about the uncertainty of knowing anything.  The characters in Fingersmith think they understand and can control what is happening, but they discover, painfully, that they can’t.  The people in Malcolm’s book believe they understand exactly what sort of people Plath and Hughes were, and yet there are others out there who are equally certain the opposite is true.  There’s really nothing a person can do but flounder through all the uncertainty and hope not to get it too terribly wrong.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction, Reading

15 responses to “Un-put-downable books

  1. I’m so glad you are enjoying Fingersmith! I thought it was so cleverly done and didn’t see the twists she created coming at all! And you’re right that the characters are interesting and have depth, too. Nothing is quite how it seems at first–I love it when an author can do that! I like the sound of the Janet Malcolm book as well and think I’ll have to add it to my list. It would be interesting to read not just about Plath and Hughes but Malcolm’s experiences researching and writing as well.


  2. I’d like to try Fingersmith as well, but it seems too un-put-downable for me right now. I loved Affinity a lot for the same reasons (deep characters, multiple readings…)


  3. I loved Fingersmith. I hunkered down at Starbucks in the spring and consumed the entire thing in a mega-reading session.

    I need to read Silent Woman as I am a Plath nut; I don’t know why I haven’t read it yet since it has been on the TBR pile for forever.

    Awesome reading choices!


  4. I am SO glad you are enjoying the Malcolm. You know I loved it. And I have to say I also loved Fingersmith, which I read several years ago. You are lucky to have two really good books on the go, Dorothy!


  5. What fun to have two really good books on the go! And what fun that they has such a commonality in theme too. First Litlove on Malcolm and now you. I’m going to have to get myself a copy of the book!


  6. The Malcolm book sounds excellent. I have to admit that I’m fascinated by the Plath-Hughes relationship and the different perspectives taken on it.

    I’d love to hear what you think of Fingersmith after you’ve finished it. I was swept up in the book but by the end I felt it was a bit less than the sum of its parts.


  7. verbivore

    I have a different Sarah Waters book on my shelf that is as yet unread – but I’ve heard such good things about her. And I love your description – struggling with the uncertainly of knowing anything. Sounds like wonderful material for fictional exploration.


  8. Two great, unputdownable books – now this is the kind of problem I don’t mind having!
    I have had Fingersmith on my pile for so long. I don’t know why I haven’t gotten to it. One of these days…


  9. I keep hearing about both these books–good to hear that they are unputdownable!


  10. The only thing tougher than two unputdownable books is when you’ve finished one or both of them, and it’s time to choose a new one! I can’t make up my mind what to start next. How do you choose?


  11. Loved Fingersmith. Don’t remember much about it, except that it was just as captivating as you say, really fun, and really well done. I guess I should look up the plot somewhere to refresh my memory, but it’s nice to hear that you’re having a good time with it.


  12. Danielle — I’m not seeing any of the twists at all either, although once they get there, I can see how Waters was building toward them. And yes, Malcolm’s experiences are very interesting to read about — well worth it.

    Smithereens — I can see why Fingersmith might not be the best book for you right now! I’m glad to know her other ones are similar, so I will probably enjoy them too.

    Amanda — wow, one sitting! I’m impressed. I don’t have the patience for that! And yes, definitely read the Malcolm, with your Plath obsession — it’s a must!

    Litlove — thank you for writing so well about the Malcolm book; you were the direct inspiration for me to pick it up!

    Stefanie — yes, it’s great that both books are working together, especially since they are so different. And yes, pick up the Malcolm book when you get the chance!

    Jess — if you are interested in the Plath/Hughes history, the Malcolm book is definitely for you. I swear you won’t be able to put it down! And that’s fairly unusual (at least for me) with a nonfiction book.

    Verbivore — oh, yes, very good fictional material, especially since the author can make the reader feel the uncertainty too, as well as making the characters feel it.

    Iliana — definitely a good problem to have! Well, whenever you get to Fingersmith, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it …

    Gentle Reader — yes, the hype is correct this time, I’d say.

    Debby — I find choosing hard too. Sometimes I go with a friend’s recommendation, which is what happened this time. A lot of the time I start with a category that sounds interesting (19C fiction, say, or a mystery novel) and then see what’s on my shelves that fits. I have quite a few books at home that are unread, so having those available makes the choice a little easier, although a lot of time I go for something completely different …

    Zhiv — if you were to look up the plot, I’m sure it would all come back to you quickly. Yes, it’s very well done — good plot and lots to think about.


  13. I like your comments about wanting to know more about the characters. After all, how can we evaluate if their actions are internally consistent, unless we have some window into their soul? I think a great book is almost required to have lots of character development.


  14. Pingback: Moving on « Of Books and Bicycles

  15. Pingback: The Silent Woman « Of Books and Bicycles

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