When I travel, I rarely read about places before I visit them; it is afterwards when I scour the travel section of newspapers for mentions of the places I have visited. Did the writer visit the same restaurants or stay at the same hotel? What were their highlights? Did they stumble upon the same delicious street food that I returned to night after night or did they marvel at the same painting?
Similarly, the time when I enjoy reading reviews the most is after I’ve finished reading a certain book. In magazines, blogs, Instagram and Facebook, I look for the articles or posts that show the cover of the book that I have just finished, and see what the reader thought.
It can be fascinating to read not just about whether a reader enjoyed the book and why, but also what elements jumped out at them. Was it the language that they enjoyed, or a fast paced story line? Did they fall in love with the same protagonist, or were they put off by his aloofness? Perhaps this is why we so enjoy reading the same books, which become ‘must reads’, and talking about them afterwards in book clubs, both in real life and online.
Recently, a read that has been on most people’s bedside tables and has been the subject of many reviews I have read in retrospect has been Sally Rooney’s Normal People. While many raved about the book, others were not quite as enamoured with it. Some of my friends said they felt the main character, Marianne was a too self-centred and melodramatic. I felt that the self-centredness rang true, after (embarrassingly, as I look back) acting in a similar way in my university days.
I felt there was a certain immaturity about Marianne that was true of her stage of life, and just as (I thought) Rooney represented the complexity of relationships so faithfully, so did she represent the foibles of the early adult years. It was a time when everyone was so idealistic, and liked to present themselves as people of depth and intelligence. Simple happiness was boring compared with the angst of big world views and yearning hearts.
Despite the differences in our opinions, it is satisfying to toss these ideas around, to compare notes and to rethink certain positions my friends and I might have taken during our reading of the book.
Similarly, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has attracted the attention of many readers, gaining both positive and negative reviews. While some readers were put off by Eleanor’s perceived rudeness, others celebrated her refreshing honesty and her rejection of social pleasantries.
Hasn’t everyone at times wanted to speak their minds about some ridiculous office social norms, as Eleanor does? But it is also interesting that Eleanor is unlikable to others, who did not warm to her despite her struggles. I love comparing and contrasting how different people react to different personalities presented in fiction, offering insight into their preferences, and their biases, in reality.
One of the joys of reading is to compare notes on books, and I’m enjoying the wealth of reviews, whether a small snippet or a more lengthy piece on what readers think of the books that I have read, that just seem to be growing and growing on social media. There has never been such a wealth of opinions on books available, accessible through a few clicks of a mouse. In some ways, it is like that irresistible time after attending an event or party, when you’re driving home and debriefing with your partner about the night. It is an opportunity to dissect conversations and situations, and to compare notes on what happened.
In the same way, reading a review retrospectively offers a kind of debrief about the book. They provide answers to the question of what others thought, and what they spotted that you might have missed. It enhances the experience of reading, enabling you to hold onto the characters of the book who you know you will miss, and can even offer insight into the reader themselves.
After travelling into the world of a book, and getting to know a book’s characters, the debriefing can be just as fun as the reading.