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11th February
2014
written by Steph
A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being

Is there anything worse than a book you expected to love but didn’t? Since setting out to travel the world, the frequent discrepancy between reality and one’s lofty expectations is something I’ve become accustomed to, but I still think I am most disappointed when I’m prepared for a book to sweep me off my feet only for it to leave me rather cold instead. That’s pretty much what happened with this book: I wanted to love it, and by all accounts, I should have loved it, but I didn’t.  It has many of the literary elements and quirks that are like cat nip to me such as discussions of quantum physics and parallel universes (I’ve never met a book that grapples with these ideas that I’ve been able to resist; see: my love affair with Scarlett Thomas, for starters), while also delving into a topic that has become near and dear to my heart over the past few years—meditation and the struggle to live in the present moment. Truthfully, I didn’t even know the book dealt with any of this before I picked it up, so all of these things should have been a delightful surprise. They were, and yet, they still couldn’t tip me over into unabashedly loving this book. I can’t put my finger on why exactly I failed to connect with this book, all I can really say is that even though I couldn’t identify any obvious flaw, I just felt really underwhelmed by this book. It wasn’t exactly painful to read as Ozeki is clearly a talented, thoughtful writer, but I found that I had to push myself to pick it up and not put it down; it didn’t exactly grip me, and I secretly felt it was a little bit boring. Maybe it’s because for as much as I like quantum physics et al., in my books, I don’t really care about WWII as a topic for literary exploration and so all those bits of the book just dragged for me. Who can say? I just never felt my especially interested or invested in the outcome of the book and for the first 50% of the book, I can’t say I was even entirely certain what the point of the book even was (as in, I knew what the basic plot was, obviously, but I didn’t really have a sense of why this story was being told or why I, as a reader, should care about it). I did feel like the last third of the book was the most interesting bit, not necessarily because of the explicit plot but just because of the ideas that were introduced—if the book could have more quickly reached the revelations about Ruth’s role in Nao’s story and the diary, I think I would have been a lot more intrigued early on. I know I should probably say a little something about what this book is about, but I can hardly muster the energy to do so. There are two stories, one about a Japanese teenager named Nao told through diary entries, the other about a middle age woman named Ruth who finds said diary washed up on the banks of the remote island she calls home. Nao wants to tell the story of her great grandmother, but really winds up talking about her own angst and how difficult her life has been and how worried she is about her suicidal father. Ruth’s storyline tracks her mounting obsession with Nao and her attempts to discover what Nao’s ultimate fate was and how her diary made its way across the Pacific ocean. In the latter third of the book, things start to get very weird and metaphysical and far less cut & dry than I have made this sound. I’ve read quite a few reviews where people say that they greatly preferred Nao’s storyline to Ruth’s, the latter being too dour and less compelling. I can’t say I disagree, but I would probably only go so far as to say that I better tolerated Nao than I did Ruth. I didn’t find myself invested in either character for the most part and despite all the horrible things that happen to Nao, I largely felt unmoved by them. She just seemed petulant and tiresome in that way teenagers are and maybe I have a cold dead heart, but I just didn’t have much sympathy for her bratty behavior. Also, because I have been feeling mentally sluggish again, it took me a bit to realize that Ruth is the first name of the author of A Tale for the Time Being, not just a character in the book. And real-life Ruth is also married to a man named Oliver. So then I wondered how much of this book was truth, and how much was fiction (obviously there were some parts that had to be fiction, but still). And normally I think I would like this blending of worlds, but for some reason this kind of annoyed me, like Ozeki was really trying to be tricky and purposefully make us wonder how much of this she had taken from her own life. I don’t know… sometimes I’m ornary for no good reason. Truthfully, I think my biggest concern while reading this book was just how unaffected I was by it, as reading it made me flashback to last year when most of what I read failed to incite much of a reaction from me. I hate reading books that I feel squarely lukewarm about—they don’t give me much to talk about as there’s nothing for me to rave rhapsodically about, and nothing for me to rip to shreds either. Enrage me, frighten me, humble me, astonish me. All I want is for a book to make me feel something, and this one just made me feel distracted and bored. All in all, I am really disappointed that I didn’t like this book more. I felt like at the end it really had such glimmers of potential but that it didn’t ultimately live up to those, at least nor me. This was probably the book that I was most excited to read when I saw it listed on the ToBX finalists, so I hope this doesn’t bode poorly for what is to come as I continue to make my way through the titles up for the rooster.  It’s not a bad book and most people really seem to love it, but at this point all I can feel about it is disappointment and I really doubt I’ll remember much about it a few months (never mind years) from now. Rating: 2.5 out of 5

10 Comments

  1. What a shame this didn’t work for you! I read an excerpt from this in one of those Netgalley forthcoming books compendium things, and I just loved Nao’s narrative voice. I ended up loving the book. But I can see how if you weren’t enjoying spending time with the characters, it would get boring quickly.

  2. mee
    02/11/2014

    This book is very near the top of my reading list! (I’m ready with both the hard copy and the ebook version and all) Too bad it didn’t work for you. I find that the problem with 400+ page book is that it takes forever to get to the point and for the story to roll and pick up pace. At least that is my problem in recent years. I just failed to continue another 400+ page book recently (didn’t get further than 6%), as I was not patient enough. Heh.

  3. I’ve take a look at the book on Goodreads and in theory it sounds great. Are you reading more books set in Asia?

  4. 02/12/2014

    @ Jenny: Sometimes I get irrationally cranky and so things I would normally like rub me the wrong way and I can’t explain why. I did warm up to Nao, but I wasn’t immediately charmed by her as so many others were. And I just didn’t find this book nearly so poignant as I thought I would, but I don’t think it’s because it was poorly executed, it was just like I was reading it from behind a glass partition.
     
    @ mee: Yes, I do think that it is the rare 400+ page book that actually needs to be that long and makes use of that length well. I used to loathe exceedingly long books, but on occasion I do enjoy them. This one was actually a quick read when I could actually find the enthusiasm to read it, but I do wish the good stuff in the latter third had somehow been bumped to the beginning!
     
    @ Alex: I really think I’m the outlier on this one, since most people who have read this have loved it and there are WAY more positive reviews on GoodReads than lukewarm ones like my own. I haven’t purposefully been trying to read more books set in Asia, but I suppose in some way I have been gravitating to them a little bit more as I feel more comfortable in this part of the world. Many of the books about the American way of life and the domestic affairs of Caucasian (upper) middle class haven’t seemed very appealing. Two of my favorite books I read last year were set in India, and I’m sure once I’m back in the west I’ll read a lot more Asian fiction to recapture our time here!

  5. I enjoyed this book, but didn’t love it in the same way others seem to. I think the problem was that I’d heard much of it before. Unlike you I thought the last third of the book was the weakest. The quantum physics seemed a bit unnecessary and didn’t gel with the rest of the book. Otherwise it sounds as though we agree on it!

  6. 02/13/2014

    I love how you go “I secretly found it boring”—I think that’s what it eventually comes to, spending time with a book you really expected you’d like, a book that’s got your name all over it, only to find in the reading that it fails to intrigue you. But you can’t admit it just yet, haha. I personally always feel deeply bothered when this happens to me—unaffected by books that I was certain I’d like.

    I’ve been intrigued about this one, but I think I’ll give it a pass now. I’ve spent too many hours lately with books I thought I’d fall heads over heels with (but with me ending up untouched). Dammit.

  7. 02/15/2014

    I know that feeling of thinking that a book was made for you but then not really enjoying it much at all. I enjoyed this one, but it was HARD to read much of the way through. This was a really thoughtful review.

  8. 02/16/2014

    @ Jackie: I didn’t necessarily think the quantum physics was necessary—in fact, that whole bit felt almost like it was from a different novel! It’s just, that was a novel I found inherently more interesting and was one I wished I had been reading from the start. 🙂 Perhaps if I had just stumbled on this one rather than having had it be hyped to high heaven I would have liked it more, but in the end, I just felt it couldn’t fully deliver what it promised.
     
    @ Sasha: I really hate finding books boring, and I often think that there can’t really be such a thing as a boring book, it’s just me failing as a reader (like, I’m not interesting or smart enough to get what makes this book interesting or smart). I think the crux of this novel is really whether you connect with and respond to either of the protagonists’ voices. I had a hard time doing so, consequently I just couldn’t care!
     
    @ Aarti: I’m so glad to hear you felt similarly to me about this one. I really expected to be captivated by this one, but it really was a bit of a slog to get through, I felt. I really struggled to say anything insightful about it, so I’m glad you felt I managed it. 🙂

  9. Pam
    02/20/2014

    I’m only 70 pages in and I’ve stalled. Not because I don’t like it, but there hasn’t been anything compelling in the story to make me want to continue.and I’m really struggling with whether I want to continue or not.

  10. 02/22/2014

    @ Pam: I really can’t say whether it’s worth it for you to continue on, but I think I felt similar to you and would say that if you aren’t hooked by page 70, you probably won’t find the storytelling any more gripping or engaging if you press on. Like you, I didn’t think it was a bad book or poorly written, I just didn’t care about the story it was telling, and reading another 300+ pages didn’t change that for me.

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