Synopsis of discussion:
- Polarisation of opinion, both by recommenders, and members of the book club
- Style, and therefore, reading experience
- Theo (and his various relationships)
- The Barbers
- Physical vs e-books
- The ending
This has been one of the longer books the book club has tackled, and despite very different reactions, everyone got through the book more quickly than they expected to, with one exception. Where some readers looked forward to reading a bit more of the book each night, drawn in by the story-telling and characterisation and others, even as they felt bludgeoned by the sheer scale of the ugliness depicted in the book were drawn, like Theo, the central character, to art galleries as redeeming spots of beauty, the dissenting voice called it ‘overblown’ and a miasma of ‘vodka and vomit’. This polarisation was reflected in the few reviews the book club looked at when deciding to read this book; there too, the positive reactions, on the whole, outnumbered the negative ones.
Even those who enjoyed, and finished the book, however, found certain things problematic. Although they sympathised with Theo, and understood his bent towards self-destruction as he faces loss after loss of those important to him, readers felt the extended scenes of drug abuse went on too long and were difficult to read. Others were disappointed at the inconclusiveness of his relationship with Pippa, given how central to his imaginative world, and therefore to his emotional survival, she is. Whilst Theo’s idolisation of his dead mother is understandable, especially when compounded by survivor’s guilt, and the book uses her as a motif to signal turning points in the book, it was felt that the division of blame between his parents may not have been as clear cut as it initially appeared. By Theo’s own unwitting account, she was not always easy to live with, and her relationship with the lawyer who holds money in trust for him may not have been entirely professional. (Also, the sub plot involving this inheritance peters out mid narrative, and is quietly forgotten, even though it has a role in Theo becoming a complete orphan.) Hobie was one of the few characters everyone agreed about, even though he too ends up letting Theo down by being too wrapped up in his own interests.
The Barbers elicited mixed reactions, with some readers finding them superficial and hard to engage with (with the exception of Andy) whilst others wanted to move in with them. Mrs Barber’s comment that father and son were very similar was thought to be very accurate.
Boris got a bit irritating at the end of the book, although his presence was very necessary to provide the massive plot twist leading to the climax of the book. The boys’ extended unsupervised drugs binge in Las Vegas when they first met seemed a bit unbelievable given that later on, in a city as vast and crowded as NYC, Theo manages to bump into every single person he ever knew there as a child.
Quite apart from the notion that beauty as encapsulated in art can be a touchstone for somebody’s life, the actual painting which lends its name to the book is considered crucially important as a physical artefact, which explains the many people throughout the book who attempt to relieve Theo of it for their own purposes. This led to a discussion amongst the book group as to the ways in which books as physical objects function as artefacts. Mirroring a conversation that cropped up when the group read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, it was agreed that certain beloved favourites could only be truly enjoyed as ‘real books’. Despite their convenience, it is hard to curl up properly with an e-reader.
The ending of the book was both satisfying, in that the story came full circle, but also felt a bit rushed and pat, given the elongation of the central sections. On the whole, it was considered a good book, with one reader calling it their favourite out of all the books read over the past several months.