*If you want to read The Sun Also Rises with an open mind, unfettered by the strong opinions I share, read the book first, then come back.
Justified or not, I have high expectations for a classic book. It’s weathered the test of time and it still sells. People still choose to read it, and that’s really something. Maybe I place too high a burden on these classics, but right now I’m questioning that “classic” status. About halfway through my reading of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in a desperate search for encouragement, I decided to stop to read some reviews. I read things like, “This may be my favorite book of all time,” and, “Line after line resonates with me on the deepest level possible,” and, so encouraged by this one, “It possesses—for the right reader—an enormity of narrative pleasure and it grips from the very first line,” so I gathered up some hope that the book might redeem itself, and I kept reading. Whatever the “right reader” is, it sounds like something a smart person wants to be when discussing a classic book.
I tried rereading parts of the book to look for the gripping parts and the narrative pleasure parts. Finally, reviews be damned, I couldn’t shake the boredom. I guess I’m not the right reader. And, honestly, I started to wonder if this could quite possibly be a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Someone with some literary clout (probably in a drunken haze—have you read the book?) said it’s a classic, it’s amazing, and in fear and dread of seeming unintelligent, everyone chimed along, yes, yes, it’s amazing. So rich. So deep.
I’ll share some of the specific thoughts I had while reading the book.
None of the characters were notable. The main character, Jake, is so whiny, I just wanted to swat him like a gnat and forget him: “Couldn’t we live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together?” Can you hear me read this aloud? Plug your nose and read this; that’s what I hear when I read it.
None of the characters were likable. Lady Brett got on my last nerve! Seriously, several times I have penciled in the margin she gets on my last nerve. “… She was smoking a cigarette and flicking the ashes on the rug. She saw me notice it. ‘I say Jake, I don’t want to ruin your rugs. Can’t you give a chap an ash-tray?’” Seriously? If she hadn’t been noticed, she’d have gone right on flicking her ashes on his rug. Ugh. Last nerve. Not to mention entitled. Geez.
Nothing happens. Ever. Wait, I’m wrong. They get drunk. That happens a lot. It took me a few pages to realize that tight meant drunk. And they’re ALWAYS tight. Also, someone explain why tight should mean drunk? The image I have of a drunk person is not that they are tight. Is it like when someone says something is bad but they really mean it’s good? So they say tight when they really mean loose?
And I found the writing pretty boring.
“What’ll we do to-night?”
“Doesn’t make any difference. Only let’s not get daunted. Suppose they got any hard-boiled eggs here? If they had hard-boiled eggs here we wouldn’t have to go all the way down to the island to eat.”
For the love . . . You have NOTHING to do all day! Go to the island to get the eggs for goodness sake! Boiled eggs. Really?
Some analysts claim Hemingway was trying to convey the despondency that Americans felt after the war. I’ve witnessed my fair share of alcohol abuse, and yes, I can’t deny that despondent and lost people fill voids with alcohol, so that helped put the endless flow of booze in perspective. Perhaps his lack of description conveys this void as well. This analysis that the novel is the quintessential snapshot of the Lost Generation helps give a bit of context. (Although, I’m not sure the typical post WWI American spent his or her days getting drunk in Paris and Spain.) The reading left me feeling bored and despondent myself, so if that was Hemingway’s purpose, then he’s super successful. That I can appreciate.
But this doesn’t make me love the book. The reading of if was difficult—not in the sense that it was PhD level material—it was just boring, and I wanted it to end.
It should give me a measure of hope, though. If this book can land on PBS’s The Great American Read’s list of America’s 100 most-loved books, anything is possible when it comes to writing. The list is full of books, and there isn’t one type that wins out. Writers write what they want to write. Sometimes an author will strike a chord with readers, and when that happens, it’s beautiful (whether I like the book or not).
It is clear that A LOT of people love this book (see the above review research and the above reference to the America’s 100 most-loved books), so I feel like I’m in the minority. I would like to hear what you loved about this book if you loved it. Share with me the reasons you loved it, and please don’t just say the book had gripping narrative. I need more than that. Share with me, too, if you didn’t like the book and why you didn’t like it. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts about the book.