Sunday, September 25, 2011

Like or Dislike?

I am currently reading One True Thing by Anna Quindlen. I'm about half way through. The basic premise of the story is a young woman who has a successful career and a boyfriend who she's been with since she was a teenager puts her whole life on hold to return home to care for her mother, who is dying from cancer.

The main character, Ellen Gulden, is not immediately a sympathetic character. In fact, at the mid-point I am just beginning to see some redeeming qualities in her. Yet, I have been hooked from the beginning in spite of not necessarily liking Ellen, which made me wonder if the main character can be an unlikable person and the reader still enjoy the story.

I compared my experience reading One True Thing with another book I started reading recently - Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I only made it a quarter through that one. All of the characters were so much without any redeeming qualities I couldn't stomach it. At one point I asked myself (aloud, yes, sometimes I talk to myself), "Why am I wasting my time reading this crap about these worthless people?" And there it ended, though I did read a summary of the book and concluded I had made the right decision to stop where I did.

Both books are critically acclaimed. But I've had very different experiences with each. Although One True Thing is more heavy subject matter than I typically like to immerse myself in, it is very real and well-written, whereas Freedom to me was very snarky and false, even misogynistic.

I'm curious to see as I finish One True Thing how I will ultimately feel about Ellen Gulden. But, one way or the other, I care enough that I will finish.


  1. Interesting question. Can the main character be unlikable.

    As for stopping a book, I'm trying to teach my kids that. They get into a book and hate it but feel like they have to finish it. There are few books you have to finish: the BOM, and assignments. Other than that, if a book isn't moving you, stop. Don't waste your time on something you hate.

  2. Here's the thing. Sometimes a character is unlikable, but still relateable. I think, as readers, it's not how good a character is, but how much we see ourselves or people we know in that character that makes us keep reading. For me, this is why I like a complexly written character that has faults and weaknesses as well as strengths. Those faults may make the character unlikable, but when I see them overcome that unlikable quality (even when they bring it on themselves), I feel inspired to overcome whatever it is that I'm struggling with. Case in point: The Three Musketeers. Excellent book where the good guys are definitely flawed, but they have redeeming qualities that carry them through.

  3. That's what I'm finding as I continue to read One True Thing. I have warmed up to the character as she has grown and changed through the course of the story. But I think what didn't completely turn me off to her in the beginning is that she acknowledged her faults, that she was a fairly cold, not empathetic person. The fact that she understood herself and could admit it made me want to read on, where in Freedom the characters seemed totally clueless about their behavior.

    As far as stopping mid-read, I didn't used to do that either, but now that summaries are so accessible on the internet, I go that route if I really want to understand where the author was going with it.

  4. Excellent question Linda and a good discussion. Thanks for your diligence in keeping up with your blog posts. I'm on it today!!