There are novels we love that might contain one disliked — even cringe-worthy — scene, element, or subplot we could do without. But we still love the books…most of the time.
Why do some great novels have a memorable flaw? I hate to break this to anyone, but authors aren’t perfect. 🙂 It’s hard to do anything as difficult and time-consuming as writing a book without the occasional misstep.
I thought about this while reading Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That last week. The 2010 book is fantastic — perhaps the best 21st-century novel I’ve had the privilege to read. It’s exquisitely written, devastatingly sad, wickedly funny, and wonderfully inspiring as Ms. Shriver (this Lionel is a she) focuses on two star-crossed families, overrated consumerism, exploitation of the powerless, and the profit-driven mess of an American medical system (two characters have fatal diseases). Plus there’s pitch-perfect dialogue — including some amazing rants — from the novel’s memorable cast. And the tropical-island ending? Wow! But there’s one subplot about a botched penile enlargement that — while sort of germane to the book’s themes and something that indirectly brings two other characters together — is rather gross and not truly needed. Yet…what a novel!
Another health-crisis-filled book — Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper — has a disturbing plot twist near the end that’s very hard to take. A twist so disturbing that it knocked the otherwise-excellent novel down enough notches to make me doubt I was glad to have read it.
In Elizabeth Berg’s Open House, protagonist Samantha makes a humiliating/embarrassing attempt to give her unlikable husband oral sex many weeks after he had coldly left her — even though the novel had already made it abundantly clear that Samantha’s self-esteem was low at the time. Fortunately, Samantha more than got her act together by the end of the mostly great book.
One of the most famous examples of a clunky moment in a terrific work is the epilogue that ends The Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling’s seventh and final Harry Potter book. Those few pages showing Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, and others 19 years later are rather tedious and awkwardly written. But Rowling’s series is so wonderful that the rare false note is okay — and, heck, the epilogue ended up inspiring the new play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Turning to older classics, there are missteps in three outstanding novels by three giants of 19th-century American literature. Mark Twain’s iconic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn includes the repellent section in which Tom Sawyer treats the escaped slave Jim cavalierly. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables is magnificently moody and melancholy until the authorial gears switch to a happy ending that doesn’t seem right. Pierre proves that Herman Melville didn’t need a sea setting to write eye-opening fiction (the book features a possibly incestuous relationship), but Melville goes off the rails when his bitterness over Moby-Dick bombing with 1850s readers and critics caused him to have Pierre laboriously write a difficult-to-read book that’s greeted with total contempt.
Then there are terrific novels with memorable segments that would have been perfectly fine in smaller doses, but drag on too long. They include the death scenes of Little Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie, the wedding-day festivities in Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den, the orgy of eating in Honore de Balzac’s The Magic Skin, and so on.
What are some novels that you love even though they have a fairly major flaw? What is that flaw?
For travel and other reasons, I’ll be skipping a column the next two Sundays (June 19 and June 26), but still checking the blog from time to time!
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at email@example.com to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.