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GREAT HOUSE by Nicole Krauss [Book 27 of 2011]

You’ve probably heard from other writers that they don’t negatively review other writers’ work as a matter of policy. Many writers believe that to do so is in bad taste. Some writers say that giving another writer a bad review is mean-spirited and self-serving. Some writers just think it invites bad karma — we can be a superstitious lot and many of us believe that giving bad reviews invites future bad reviews. Writers will also tell you that they’ve been given bad reviews and would never want to inflict that on another writer.


What you’ll almost never hear a writer say is that they don’t want to give a bad review, because the writing world is small, and there is a pretty good chance that you’ll run into the writer you gave a bad review … or even worse, need a blurb from her or him. This, I think, is what accounts for 90% of most writers’s distaste for reviewing other writers, but sadly, almost no one is frank enough to say so. However, I’ll admit to it now: that’s why I don’t give bad reviews to black authors. If I can’t find anything nice to say, I don’t say anything at all, just because I hate awkwardness and it would be awkward to run into an author I had given a terrible review.

Most often, the possibility of a negative review doesn’t even come up for me. I’m a pretty generous reader in most cases. Also life is too short to read books I don’t enjoy. I’ll usually abandon a book as opposed to giving it a full read and review. But in the case of GREAT HOUSE by Nicole Krauss, there were a few other factors in play for my reading to the end: a) I simply adored her second boo,  THE HISTORY OF LOVE, b) this book has an intriguing first hundred or so pages, c) It’s beautifully written, and d) it’s been shortlisted for several prestigious prizes — surely I thought, when the novel began to wane for me about halfway in, there’s some reason for all of these accolades. At one point is morphed from a novel I was no longer enjoying to a mystery of appeal that I felt the need to solve by seeing it through to the end.  In the end, however, GREAT HOUSE managed to hit so many of my literary pet peeves, that I’m not going to even bother with a “What I Loved” section. I’ll go straight into…

Writing Lessons Learned

Actually set out to do something. A common complaint of writers is that reviewers should review not according to their own taste, but to a standard that they phrase as “Did the writer accomplish what he or she set out to do?” This proposed standard frustrates me, because what does it even mean? How can we know what a writer set out to do? In any case, I don’t believe Krauss did what she set out to do, because it doesn’t appear that she’s setting out to do much with this novel. Oh yes, she takes us on a trip to many interesting places, but it’s a lot like following around a trusted tour guide only to end up abandoned in some random place. “This is where you were taking me?” you want to ask Ms. Krauss. “Why the hell would you take me here? What were you thinking? Did you even have a plan?” I suspect she didn’t. A lot of writers pride themselves on not using outlines or plot points or employing any sort of structure whatsoever, but man, would most literary novels be improved if these same writers just came off their high horses and abided by some basic rules of craft.

Make sure you have a satisfying end. This novel felt long and immensely unsatisfying. So many tantalizing questions get left unanswered, and Krauss spends the most amount of time with the least likeable characters. At the end of the day, I wondered if this novel got nominated for so many awards, because it paints writers in the worst light, and many of the people who make these nominations are self-hating writers. At first, I loved the deep investigation into the minds and souls of writers, but after a while it began to seem like a one-trick pony. Okay, we get it, writers are cold and distant, terrible people to love or even befriend — what’s your point, Ms. Krauss?

Not everything should be beautifully written. Everyone in this novel talks in a very literary way — that is exactly like the writer of a literary novel. At one point, one of the novel’s more interesting characters, the widower of one of these awful, distant writers solves a mystery about his dead wife, which involves meeting with another character, who tells him a long story about “what happened,” a story filled with well-crafted sentences and perfect verbs. It reminded me that almost nothing takes a reader out of the story faster than having a character who doesn’t talk like a real person. Always, always, always, mind your dialogue.

It is the writer’s job to make unlikeable characters understood. It’s okay if a reader doesn’t like your character, if she doesn’t understand your character, however, then something in your storytelling went very wrong. I kept on wondering throughout the novel why anyone would become romantically involved or associate with any of these people. What was the attraction to these cold, distant writers? What would make someone want to even write about them?

Satisfying endings are a necessity. The reader doesn’t need or necessarily want a happy ending, but a non-satisfying conclusion — especially ones that don’t tie up all the threads you’ve left dangling — just makes people feel like you’ve wasted their time and angry — like they trusted you and you made a fool out of them. I felt foolish for having read to the end of this novel, and that is the worst feeling.

The biggest disappointments are the novels that you want to like. I’ve been struggling with this notion myself. Though 32 CANDLES has not set the world on fire, the fans it does have are sincere and enthusiastic about it. A few of them will love the second novel, a few of them will hate it. This novel reminded me that every author has to come to terms with the fact that they will disappoint and lose readers with every novel, as Ms. Krauss has disappointed and lost me. And every author has to continue writing anyway, as I’m sure and glad that Ms. Krauss will do, despite any negative reviews she’s received on this third novel.

So those are my thoughts on GREAT HOUSE by Nicole Krauss, a novel that I recommended to several people toward the beginning of my journey with it but turned on bitterly by the end. As it goes…

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