In which a lowly blogger and former English teacher explains why she trashes this award winning book.

I love to read. Most of the time. But not all of the time. And this week is one of those ‘not all of the time’ times.

Let me explain.

I’m currently trying to read an apparently wonderful novel, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

It seems everyone loves this book. So it must be wonderful.  Even “…irresistible” according to Lucy Daniel in her review in the Telegraph. Ms. Daniel seems besotted with the book. And obviously she’s not alone; the judges for the 2013 Man Booker prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction obviously agree. Since Ms. Catton went home with both prizes last year. And she’s not just a double prize-wining author at 28; she’s kind of adorable.

Yep, it seems everyone loves Eleanor Catton, and this book. Everyone, it seems, but me.

I’m actually trying to read The Luminaries for the second time. We’re scheduled to discuss it at my book club luncheon tomorrow.

I started the book the first time in early September. It’s set in the 1860’s in New Zealand gold mining country. Hubby and I have travelled to New Zealand twice and loved it. We were fascinated when we toured the historic gold mining areas in the South Island of New Zealand, as well as in the Canadian Yukon. So I was sure I’d love this book.

Views from a hike in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

And after reading the reviews which pitched it as a masterfully plotted mystery, cleverly written historical fiction, with “bustling, brawling plot lines,” I was doubly, even triply sure I’d love it.

Wrong. One might even say, doubly, triply wrong. I pretty much hated everything about the book.

I hated the style. I love historical fiction usually, but I was not expecting the style of the book to emulate the style of writing popular in the nineteenth century. Wordy, convoluted description that did more telling than showing. Just the opposite of what I had taught my writing classes for 20+ years. Like reading Dickens or Conrad or Hawthorne …. or like wading through molasses, cold molasses, uphill…in high heels. I’m a Hemingway lover; I like a lean and mean style. This was torture.

I hated the contrived plot structure built around the idea of the stars and astrology. I hated the intrusive narrator. I hated that I never once forgot that I was reading a constructed piece of fiction. I love books that make me forget I’m reading; books where I can just tumble into the setting and experience the story with the characters. Like Alice tumbling down that rabbit hole.

But… I told myself… I must persevere. Eventually the plot would draw me in. Riiight…so that didn’t happen. After 50 pages, I was starting to get cranky. Okay… maybe I should set it aside for a couple of weeks. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for serious literature, I told myself. I still had a month; I’d come back to it.

And so I did. And now I’m on page 200 and there are over 800 pages in the book and my book club luncheon is tomorrow. Gulp. I will never finish it.

This book has truly defeated me. It’s not as if I found the 800+ pages daunting in and of themselves. I love a fat book, as my husband calls them. I’ve read and loved (and own) many a fat book. How could I be the only person alive who didn’t get THIS book?
And then I discovered David Sexton’s review of The Luminaries in the London Evening Standard. This man is truly a kindred spirit. He understands me and my opinions. Sigh. At last. You can read David Sexton’s review here. And you should read it; it’s brilliant and hilarious. Now there are at least two of us who don’t love this book, who don’t think this book is so… wonderful.
And now it’s tomorrow. And my book club meeting has come and gone. I didn’t finish the book, quelle surprise! But we had a great afternoon at V.’s lovely home.
With a delicious lunch.
And lots of great discussion.
And surprisingly, I was not alone in my criticism of the book. As R. put it…” Eleanor Catton had a much harder ride from us than from the Man Booker judges. Clearly our standards are much higher.”
We all thought the novel was brilliantly plotted, that Catton’s craftsmanship was evident throughout. But… we didn’t feel drawn to the characters or their plight. And we seriously didn’t get the astrology thing. I mean we understood intellectually her references to the zodiac, but felt the whole conceit was extraneous to the story… To quote R. again it was “cumbersome,” an “impediment” to our enjoyment, even.
In fact, we didn’t much like the book at all.
It was… well … kind of a snore…really.

You know, I’m not usually defeated by a book. I love books; rarely do I say that I “hate” a book. Reading has enriched my life for as long as I can remember.

But this week, trying to slog my way through The Luminaries, I’ve been feeling almost anti-book. That reading has become a chore. Maybe I need a book break…. a vacation from reading.


Nah… I think I just need to get up from the computer and go dig out a couple of my old favourites. Books whose characters I love. And whose themes make me all warm inside. That restore my faith in the world (and in books) as an interesting and enriching place.

Or maybe just a good murder mystery? A well written, solidly plotted, good old murder mystery. With an darkly, moonlit setting, a quirky but brilliant  detective…

and absolutely no mention of astrology.


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10 thoughts on “Illuminating The Luminaries…”

  1. Thank you, thank you, for directing me to that review. A new recruit to our book group recommended this and I tried to like it. But after only a couple of chapters muttering ("show don't tell") under my breath, I would have chucked it heartily aside in disgust: had it not been on my Kindle. Anyway. At first I worried she might not be the right person for our book group. Until I realised that anyone who can recommend a book that divides opinion is an asset; we should welcome her with open arms. The most disappointing meetings are the ones where we all agree we loved the book (for your reading list, we loved; Half a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nothing to Envy – Barbara Demick, The Idea of Perfection – Kate Grenville …) regards – Esme

    1. Thanks for the book recommendations. I will look those up. We had one of our best discussions ever for The Luminaries. I was afraid that the girl who recommended the book would be offended, but she wasn't at all. So a great meeting overall.
      Thanks for stopping by, Esme.

  2. I wrote about The Luminaries and The Booker and Who Would Really Finish Their Copy at the end of last year on my oh-so-neglected book blog ( I did find it engaging and can still call to mind some of the characters, quite clearly, a year later. But I've wished for a discussion about it and found few who persevered to . . . That Ending! (did any of your finishers at the book club get to it? were they frustrated or annoyed?).

    1. I tried really hard to like that book. I know I sound totally flippant in my post….but I wanted to like the overall premise of the 12 men, and the idea of the shifting nature of truth in their stories. But I thought that Michael Ondaatje, for instance, in Anil's Ghost does a much better job of examining that theme. I would agree that the book does stay with you. I really wanted to find out what happened in the end…but found trying to wade through Catton's prose too frustrating. Several members of my book club did finish the book; one lady read it twice. And didn't enjoy it either time. We all wished that we could have read what each of the Booker (or the GG) judges had to say about the book. I'm going to copy the link to your post and send it on to my book club.

  3. My friend's Stanford Grad children raved about this book, so I thought I might like it, but like you, I did not. I too have traveled to that area of NZ and could relate to the rain etc, I remember some of the characters but have now forgotten the ending. Long and slow moving was my thought.

  4. Hi Susan, I love your blog! Here are my thoughts re this post: I do not enjoy long books, feeling very few are worth the time. Reading for a book group is a commitment, so choosing works over 350 pages in length can be problematical when the book turns out to be poorly written or just plain bad, and few can finish the book. Re this particular book, my daughter, who holds several advanced degrees (MFA, MA in literary translation, etc), told me it was very poorly written and not worth slogging through. Plus, even though I know you don't think it really signifies, the appearance or age of the author means not a whit!
    I loved the early Hilary Mantel and everyone I know loved Wolf Hall. The question is whether one day I can bring myself to try it.

    1. I agree about age and appearance…a good book is good whatever…just my trying to lighten the mood of my rant. If you like detail, do give Wolf Hall a try. I loved it. But some people in my book club felt that not knowing any English history (around Henry VIII era) impeded their enjoyment. I love that era and have devoured everything that Phillipa Gregory wrote about Henry and his poor wives. So I found Mantel's new perspective really fascinating.
      Thanks for reading…and commenting. I love these on-line discussions.

    1. Book clubs are great. I belong to two. And after many years of feeling guilt for not making my book club deadline…I just go anyway for the wine, food and conversation even if I didn't read the book.

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