I forgot. I've completely forgotten how much I love The Thorn Birds, which I first read in 1979 or so, and am now rereading with Lesley. I 'threw down' yet another novel in despair yesterday afternoon. This time, it was Eric Larson's In The Garden of Beasts. I could not bear one more long, drawn out account of Hitler. Rohm. The SA Troopers in their brown shirts parading down the street. I've read it all before; I've studied it, I've grieved over it, I've cried over Anne Frank, literally, while standing in her hidden, empty rooms. There is nothing more that I want to know about the Nazis, nothing new that I've learned since first reading about them in the 60's.
But that isn't the first book I've "thrown down". There was the time that I was all set to read The Savage Detectives with Richard; there I was, all excited about a mystery of sorts, and I get page after page of characters who make no sense to me. What is their purpose? What, for crying out loud, was Bolano's purpose? Halfway through I abandoned it.
Before that, I "threw down" The Wings of The Dove which I was all set to read with Frances. "Henry James," I thought, "it'll be like a little piece of Downton Abbey in literary form. Only, it was pages and pages and pages of mind-numbing description with sentences that would not seem to end.
And those were books I'd chosen to read! What about all the books that have been sent my way by publishers who took the time, the effort, the money to mail me a book which I laboriously squeezed into my already finite reading time so that I could write a fair review? I half expect those to be somewhat disappointing simply because I haven't chosen them off the shelf myself.
At any rate, there I was yesterday evening with The Thorn Birds after a particularly horrible day. I'd just discarded In The Garden of Beasts, as previously mentioned, and I opened up this beloved novel by Colleen McCullough. I was immediately transported. First, I was in New Zealand with Meggie, experiencing her first day of school, the way that the nun canes her hands for being late, the way that her brothers flung her brand new china doll around until she's all but broken. Then, I'm in Mary Carson's living room in Australia, looking with her at Father Ralph. I can see his lean form, his Daimler car, all his strength and handsomeness just as well as Mary can see it.
So this is what makes a book good, in part. The way that it takes me some place else without making it feel like a ten hour ride in a car. But it's more than that. Not only am I in this other place, I can see the characters as if they were real people. They move and breathe and have their being without one aspect seeming false. And finally, there's story. There's a story that I care about, that will ultimately teach me something or else get me to look at an issue in a new way. Those are the qualities that make me unable to put a book down.
I find these qualities in books like A.S. Byatt's Possession. Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride. Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Haruki Murakami's Kafka on The Shore. But I can't trust them to be within every book I pick up. In fact, I feel it's a rare and lucky day when I do find the book that makes me say, "Have you read this? You just have to!"