Tag Archives: Bildungsroman

Cutting For Stone : a Novel by Abraham Verghese


I started this book…last summer?…because the work book club was reading it. I really enjoyed it at first, but for some reason I bogged down in the middle because a) it was due back at the library and b) I was really frustrated with Marion, the protagonist, and some members of his family that annoyed me. Then I had to wait forever for it to come around on the holds list again, and stop being mad at Marion (because as my father always says, you can choose your friends but you’re stuck with your family, so poor Marion is stuck), and finally finish it off.

Basically, this is a love story about a man who is madly in love with both his profession and his country, while also thinking he is in love with a woman, but he’s really in love with his idea of a relationship with that woman, so that doesn’t work out. If you can get past being embarrassed for Marion over his one-sided, nearly imaginary relationship with a girl he grows up with, it’s actually a great coming-of-age story. We begin in Ethiopia at a hospital called Missing (Mission Hospital, actually, but no one calls it that). Marion is the son of an English surgeon and an Indian nun who work there. He and his twin were born unexpectedly – the nun never told anyone that she was pregnant, and their father was a blackout drinker and had no idea they’d ever consummated their relationship. There are complications, she dies, their father leaves Ethiopia in shock and grief, and the boys are taken in by another doctor at the hospital. Once the boys have a family, the story takes flight.

When the boys are about to finish high school – Marion plans to go to medical school and Shiva just wants to be done – there is a pivotal event that changes the life of Genet, the girl Marion loves. Shiva does something that hurts Marion deeply, and sets a whole sequence of events into motion that I can’t describe without ruining the story. Suffice it to say, Marion leaves Shiva by stages – first moving out of their shared bedroom, then out of the country to finish medical training in the United States. How they reconnect, what happens to Genet, what happens to their adopted parents and what happened to their missing father – it’s all out in the open by the end. I still am not quite sure I forgive Marion for being quite so stupid about Genet, but it was definitely worth reading the book despite his romantic ineptitude.

After I finished the book, I looked on Amazon and saw that it is reviewed there by John Irving. I found this funny, because throughout the book I kept comparing it in style to a John Irving novel. (Something about the grand scope of following someone from early childhood on, and feeling like you’ve become part of their life by the end. Plus all of the medical parts.) If you’ve read A Prayer for Owen Meany, or The Cider House Rules, Marion is very like both John Wheelwright and Homer Wells (and if I think about it too much, Shiva is rather like Owen Meany in the sense that he holds so much sway over Marion even when he isn’t present, and because he is odd and no one but Marion truly “gets” him). So if you like Irving, or Charles Dickens, or Thomas Hardy or any of those long rambling life story writers, you’ll probably like it.

Oh – and don’t be fooled by the history of the Ethiopian revolution while reading this. The events of the story follow the spirit but not the letter of the actual historic events. So you’ll get an idea of what life was like in Ethiopia at the time, but don’t take the story’s events as fact.



The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (and also The Secret History because I read them together)


My book club generally picks a few books ahead so that we can all get the book early. Two of our members, unbeknownst to each other, chose back-to-back Donna Tartt books for November and December. I had never read any of her books, and had heard completely opposing opinions of her work from coworkers whose taste I normally trust. How could she be the best author coworker H ever read while simultaneously being “not finishable” to coworker E? Well, after reading The Secret History for November’s meeting and The Goldfinch for December’s, I have a theory: H must have read Goldfinch while E read The Secret History.

The Secret History is basically Evan Hunter’s Come Winter updated for a new generation (sister Julia, are you reading this? You might like it). It’s full of completely unlikeable, unredeemable characters doing awful, thoughtless, painful things to other people and then taking no responsibility and feeling no remorse for those actions. It’s not just the protagonist – his friends, his parents, and his teacher are all pretty much a waste of DNA. I kept waiting for someone to actually learn something from their colossal mistakes, but (spoiler alert) no one ever did and they kept piling bad decisions on top of one another. Skip this one, seriously, unless you like books about self-involved assholes that make you sorry you’re a fellow human. (It’s like the literary equivalent of watching Pulp Fiction, just replace the gratuitous bible quotes with Greek literature.)

The Goldfinch, on the other hand, I loved. The protagonist is just as flawed a person as the characters from Secret History, but I sympathized with him because unlike the overprivileged, snobbish characters in Secret History, Theo has horrible life experiences to overcome, so I cut him a lot of slack. (Also, his crimes don’t seem so heinous. I could see myself committing a few of them if I was a motherless shell-shocked teen. Richard and his friends’ crimes in Secret History? No excuses, they shouldn’t have done any of them. Ever.) Warning: The beginning of the novel takes forever. It says right on the book jacket that his mother dies. He tells you himself on the first page that she dies. And then it takes like 40 billion chapters for her to actually die so we can get on with the remaining events of the story. Once his mother is safely disposed of, the story picks up. We watch 13-year-old Theo as he stumbles through life with no idea what to do next, or how to do it. A childhood friend’s family takes him in temporarily, and he tries his best to fit in with them, but it doesn’t last. Neither does his stint living with his deadbeat dad in Las Vegas. It is only when Theo takes his life into his own hands, seeking out a family of his own choosing, that things start looking up for him. The problem? Theo has been essentially allowed to raise himself, and no matter how old he gets, he still keeps making decisions a 13 year old boy would make, and they keep working out about as well as you’d expect.

It all comes to a head once Theo is in his 20s, when every bad decision he’s ever made gathers to smack him in the face at once. Watching the chips fall is highly entertaining – can it get worse? Yes! It can! But wait, it’s getting EVEN WORSE!  I can’t tell you any more or I’ll spoil the story. I’ll just throw out a few reasons you might want to read it: Art theft, antiques fraud, the Russian Mafia, rampant drug use, infidelity, mental illness, denial, unrequited love…it’s all in there. And the glorious descriptions of Carel Fabritus’ The Goldfinch – the painting at the story’s center – made me want to steal it myself.

So – if you like long, rambling stories that teeter just on the brink of disaster, and you often find yourself sticking with a novel just to see what horrible thing will happen next, you might like The Goldfinch. To be fair, you might also like The Secret History – it has the same “oh shit they’re going to …” vibe, but the things that happen are far more horrible and the people far less redeemable than Theo and his collected “family”.

As a side note, I wonder seriously about Donna Tartt’s drug use. They say that writers should write what they know, but if Tartt uses even a tenth of the drugs and alcohol her characters do, how the hell does she have enough brains left to string together coherent sentences? I know I am a fairly conservative person when it comes to substance abuse (well, except for grad school, but really, what else was there to do in Kansas City for 3 years?), but holy cow, how many drugs can a person wash down with how much alcohol before they just fall down and DIE?

I Was a Child: A Memoir by Bruce Eric Kaplan

i was

You may not think you know who Bruce Eric Kaplan is, but once you see the illustrations and know that he goes by his initials (and if you ever read The New Yorker just for the comics), you’ll recognize him.

The book is a series of tiny snippets of Kaplan’s childhood, a sort of prose version of his trademark single-panel cartoons. The story is loosely arranged, hopping around chronologically so that I was never quite sure how old he was supposed to be at any given moment, but that was part of the book’s charm. It was like having someone tell you about his life in snippets of conversation, so that maybe you don’t know the whole life story in perfect order, but you have a feel for what made him who he is.

Anyway, if you like cartoons, if you like memoirs, if you like stories about people who grew up Generation X in America, you might like it. I think the moments of recognition were the best reason that I enjoyed the book – often, Kaplan starts or ends a passage with “I always thought” or “I wondered why” or “I felt like”… and I realized reading those passages that I’d thought/wondered/felt the exact same thing. The best parts are when he finishes one of those passage with “…and I still do.”

Long, rambling plots that allow a character to develop over time

Instead of reviewing a particular book today, I wanted to talk about what happens when I try to advise a person on what to read and then discover a “theme” that all of the books they’ve liked have in common. This makes it so much easier to recommend something. Even if the style of book they like isn’t my particular cup of tea, it is easier to find read-alikes once I know what their “hook” is.

For example, there are some readers out there – and when I meet one, I always want to go out for coffee and write down everything they have read that I haven’t – who love, as I do, the Long Rambling Novel. You know – those weighty tomes that allow you to watch a character go through (occasionally improbable but always exciting) events one after the other, as they strive toward some goal that always hangs just beyond their grasp, or try to solve some mystery that they just can’t crack. These books are often historical, and involve actual people and events, but shown from the protagonist’s perspective. This gives them a nice basis in reality no matter how fanciful the plot gets. My ultimate example of the Long Rambling Novel is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. If you find someone who has loved GWTW, this person has probably also read and loved Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, or will once s/he has tried them. It’s a bit of a stretch, but readers of this type might also like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, or Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy. I might go so far as to put Rebecca by Daphne DuMarier in this class, and if I stretch really really hard I could say Beauty by Sheri Tepper might satisfy as well, though the history element isn’t there unless you count fairy tale history. If I can discount history and reality entirely, I would say that Bujold’s Vorkosigan series fits this feel, as well as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead (which should be one book, and should never have had any sequels – but that’s just my opinion, by all means read them all if you have the time, but I already did and if you trust me, I can save you the trouble – don’t bother).

I just realized that the majority of the previously mentioned books (the Sci Fi excepted) have female protagonists, but there are male analogues such as Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd or Jude the Obscure, and some Dickens – Great Expectations pops to mind. The main thing all of these novels have in common is the bond the reader forms with the protagonist and the world he or she lives in. The story may not be totally believable, the character might not be quite likeable, but once you put the book down, you miss that character, and his or her family and friends, and the world s/he lives in. Based on that criteria, I’d say John Irving’s novels qualify as well. (A Widow for One Year if you are female, many of the others if you are male. But you can probably skip Setting Free the Bears or The Water Method Man, trust me. You’re welcome.)

As I write this, I realize another thing that most of these protagonists have in common – each is absolutely, positively determined to get what he or she wants, collateral damage be damned. As Rhett says to Scarlett, “You say if you had it all to do over again, you’d do it differently. But would you? Think, now. Would you?…You are in the exact position of a thief who’s been caught red-handed and isn’t sorry he stole but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail.” Amber from Forever Amber isn’t any less selfish, and if you look at his actions objectively, Pip from Great Expectations is a totally self-centered opportunist jerk. And don’t get me started on Edmond Dantes, the dude kills people. I’m now kind of worried what this says about me that I love these fictional narcissists so much. But it’s hard not to love a character who works so hard toward something, even if they fail and mow down everyone around them in the process.

Others in a similar vein:
Iola Fuller – The Loon Feather
Madeleine L’Engle – The Small Rain and its sequel, A Severed Wasp
Philip Pullman – His Dark Materials trilogy

Can you add some Long Rambling Novels to my list? Please, have at it in the comments. I always need new ones.