I haven’t done this in ages, but for the first time this year and for who knows how long before that, I’m setting aside a book I’m not getting along with. I should give up on books I’m not loving more often, I know that, but I generally don’t anyway. I want to give a book a chance before I quit reading it, and once I’ve done that, I usually find myself far enough into it that it doesn’t seem too hard to just carry on.
But I was reading Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children before I left on vacation, and while I found it interesting on some levels, I also found myself on page 150 or so out of 500+ pages wondering if I was ever going to be able to finish the thing. I felt like I’d already plowed through a lot, but that tons more was waiting for me, and I wasn’t sure the book was going to change or develop much to make the plowing on worth while. And then vacation intervened, and I had a lot of other books to read, and I haven’t picked it up in a few weeks now and will put it back on the shelf soon.
The book is a family story. It’s about a woefully mismatched couple with a large brood of children, and it describes the family dynamics, including the horrible fights the parents have and the way the children try to keep peace in their family. It captures the father’s highly imaginative use of language and the games he plays with his children, as well as the mother’s longing for a different kind of life and refusal to accept the circumstances she finds herself in. The eldest daughter, Louisa, is a child from the father’s previous marriage, a fact her step-mother never lets her forget. Louisa, in the heartbreaking way of children, accepts this and doesn’t question it, although she has also begun to explore the world outside the family more and is retreating into the private world of adolescence. There is cruelty in the way the parents treat the children, but, somehow, there is also love and moments of happiness. What else can young children do but make the best of the situation they find themselves in?
I liked the way the book explored this dynamic — the problem of children trying to understand what is going on in their family when it both nurtures and harms them, in ways they aren’t grown up enough to comprehend. Certain kinds of dysfunctional families are very interesting to read about, and this family reminded me very much of the family in Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. In both cases, the parents have wonderful things to offer to their children, but they can’t seem to grow up enough themselves to be capable of taking care of others.
The problem, though, is the pacing. I read and read, and not much happened, and there wasn’t enough narrative tension or tension among the characters to make me want to keep going. I think I can be a patient reader, but there wasn’t enough to reward my patience.
It’s a memorable book, though. Even if I never pick it up again, I’ll remember the family. Maybe I’m missing a really great ending, and if you have read this book before, you can let me know if I have, but I think with some books you don’t have to read the entire thing to get something from it.