Sometimes expectations are a hard thing. You root for a sports team that’s supposed to be terrible and a .500 season feels great. If that same .500 team was supposed to vie for a championship, the season was a disaster, right?
The same might be said for certain books. Unknown authors can knock your socks off with unexpectedly great novels, while highly praised books and authors can leave you thinking, “What was all the fuss about?” – and yes, I’m looking at you, Jonathan Franzen and your novel Freedom.
I was thinking about this aspect as I was perusing my “to-review” list and thought that it made a pretty interesting collection and might be a fun exercise to see how they matched up to the hype.
Among Others by Jo Walton
Great Expectation: 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel and 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel.
Winning both those awards is pretty high praise for a science fiction or fantasy novel, and so even though I’d never heard of it, I was interested to give it a read. Among Others tells the coming-of-age story of Morwenna Phelps, a 15-year-old Welsh girl, who is sent to boarding school after her sister dies (and she is terribly injured) in a car accident. This doesn’t sound very “fantasy” except that Morwenna can see faeries, do magic, and must protect herself from her (literally) evil witch of a mother. I liked Walton’s subtle magical world, but this is much more coming of age (solace in books, making friends, dealing with family, getting a boyfriend) than it is fantasy. The story takes place in the aftermath of the events that killed her sister and so there is very little of what you’d refer to as “action”. The conclusion felt rushed and somewhat anticlimactic.
Expectations Met? No. Not by a long shot. I find that I usually like or at least appreciate award-winning books, but boy, did this one miss the mark with me. Two stars.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Great Expectation: ALL NERDS LOVED IT!
When I started high school, my family got an Atari 2600 game console and the game I played the most was one called Adventure, in which you (as a square-dot) navigated a world (about 20 screens) of swords and castles and dragons. By today’s standards, it was stupefyingly simple, but back then? It was the bomb. So, there was a lot of joy for me when it was featured in the first chapter. Ready Player One has one foot in the not-too-distant 2044 and one foot solidly in 1980s nostalgia. The story follows Wade Watts both in the real world and the online world of the OASIS – an immersive alternate reality to which much of the world is addicted, because the real world sort of blows. Wade is a “gunter” – a searcher for a secret “Easter Egg” within the OASIS, the finder of which will receive untold riches. Wade and his compatriot gunters are racing an evil corporation (of course) for the Egg and the freedom of the OASIS is at stake. The clues to finding the egg are all embedded in 1980s pop culture trivia (movies, music, video games, comics, television…) because that was the original programmer’s fascination.
Expectations Met? Absolutely. This book was a ton of fun, though I think you have to have been born between 1960 and 1980 to really enjoy it. At times silly and at times surprisingly tense, I enjoyed this romp through both the past and the future. Four stars.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Great Expectation: This was the IT book this summer.
On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife Amy disappears from their Missouri home. From that premise, Gone Girl goes in two directions. In the current timeframe, we see the unhappily married Nick become the prime suspect in Amy’s disappearance, though he claims his innocence. But in a clever twist, Flynn intersperses Nick’s chapters with diary entries from Amy starting from with loving ones when they met to wary ones near the day she disappeared. Did Nick do it? Were there other factors? Flynn keeps you guessing through a rocking and suspenseful first half of the book, which was as good as any mystery that I’ve read in a long time. Unfortunately, at that point she lets the cat out of the bag and the plot machinations got a little hard for my suspension of disbelief to bear.
Expectations Met? No. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bigger disparity between the set-up and conclusion of a mystery/thriller. That averages out to okay, but it left me wishing the end was as good as the beginning. Three stars.
Catching Fire & Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Great Expectation: O MY GOD. THE. BEST. BOOKS. EVER.
I’d read The Hunger Games more than a year ago – and I liked it well enough, but not so much that I felt like I just HAD to get to the next installments right away. So over the last couple of months, I decided to download the final two books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. In them, Katniss Everdeen is pitted against the totalitarian Capitol and its leader President Snow. If the first book was one of survival, these two were broader and almost became “dystopian political thrillers”. I liked Mockingjay more than Catching Fire, which seemed to be making time during its first half before its too-predictable climax. In all the books, there was a little too much “which boy loves me? Which boy do I love?” angst, but I appreciated the grayness in the final arc, which gave Katniss and company more depth than they’d had before.
Expectations Met? Sure. Despite the series’ rabid fans, my expectations for this trilogy were pretty mild. I liked each book in this series, probably in the order of: The Hunger Games, Mockingjay, and Catching Fire.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Great Expectation: 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
This novel – though in some ways it could be considered a collection of connected short stories – is probably one of the ballsiest books I’ve read in a long time. The story follows different perspectives of a group of characters that mostly orbit Bennie Salazar, an aging music executive and his onetime assistant, Sasha, with the theme of how we are affected by the imperceptible passage of time weaving through each of the stories: “Time’s a goon,” one character remarks. The narratives go back and forth in time from the 1980s into the near future, and each character gets the center perspective only once. Because of that, it always takes a bit to figure out “who” is the focus and “when” they are. I recall one chapter being second person and one was done as a PowerPoint presentation. If this all sounds somewhat “gimmicky”, I suppose it might be, and in a lesser author’s hands I imagine it would be a train wreck.
Expectations Met? Yes, and then some. I had no idea about what this book was about when I started it, only a few nonspecific recommendations from friends. I can see why it was hard to describe. Four stars.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Great Expectation: 2011Man Booker Prize
I’d heard a lot of buzz in literary circles about Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. This short novel is a contemplation by a retired man, Tony, about his life and the friends that he had as a schoolboy. The novel is broken into two parts: Tony reflecting on his school years and Tony in the present. In the school years, Tony is essentially a nerd with nerdy friends; the alpha-nerd (and most arrogant) is Adrian, whom all the friends want to impress. Tony does, though, get his first girlfriend, a “free spirit” named Veronica, who he eventually loses to Adrian. In the present, Tony is brought back into contact with Veronica after decades of separation, which precipitates his recollections and reconsideration of past events.
Expectations Met? No. This book was fine, but seemed to be trying to be meaningful than, you know, actually being meaningful. I kept waiting for something to hit me, to move me and it never came. In the end, it seemed the needless navel-gazing of a selfish boy who became a selfish man.
So, how about you? How do you deal with expectations? Can you remain neutral to them?