I’ve recently finished two books that couldn’t have been more different in terms of plot – yet oddly the two main criticisms I have of each book are the same….
Firstly, Headlong by Michael Frayn. Our narrator, Martin, heads to his isolated country retreat with wife and baby daughter, and finds himself being asked to cast his eye over some paintings owned by locally bumpkin Tony. Martin is convinced one of the paintings is incredibly valuable, and thus begins his quest to get his hands on the painting by any means necessary, even at the expense of his marriage…
I quite liked this book to begin with. The scenes at the start between Martin and Tony were quite amusing and although Martin comes across as a bit of an idiot, the story is quite funny and interesting enough. But then the book turns into a seemingly endless lecture on art history as Martin does his research into the painting – and bores us with every tiny detail. Alongside this, Martin himself becomes more and more annoying, and I found myself really disliking him. Alongside the full history about old Dutch paintings, this pretty much killed the book for me and I skipped larger and larger sections (none of which affected my understanding of the plot) and struggled to the end.
The plot of What We Left Behind by Robin Talley could not be more different. Toni and Gretchen get together at a high school dance and seem like the perfect couple. But when they both go to college, things start to go wrong as Toni struggles with gender identity …
So what could this possibly have in common with a boring art history lecture in disguise as a novel? Well, first I had a problem with the main character, Toni. I found the character really unlikable and find myself longing for Gretchen’s sections of the novel as she seemed much more grounded and relatable.
The focus of the story is Toni’s struggle with identity and gender, and although this is interesting at times, and something quite new for me, just like in Headlong I felt at times this turned into a lecture and got in the way the story. The balance never felt right for me, and I found myself struggling to care whether or not Toni wanted to be called he or she or ‘them’. As insensitive as it sounds, I just wanted Toni and Toni’s friends to talk about something else just once!
Again, I struggled to the end, and while this felt like a worthy and educational book in many ways, it just wasn’t very gripping and the story and characters sadly failed to interest me.