…I wrote a snotty letter to Michael Dirda, reviewer for the Washington Post, about The Shadow of the Wind — one of my Top 10 Worst Books Ever Written*. It follows. While I still stand beside the sentiment — it truly is an awful and awfully written book — I wish that I hadn’t written it the way that I did, especially since Michael Dirda wrote back and could not have been nicer. He even went so far as to compliment my writing, whereas if the roles were reversed, I probably would have either ignored my email or instead wrote something like, “Well, maybe you’ll review this novel in your own column in an internationally recognized newspaper of record. Oh, wait…”
[* This is a constantly changing and evolving list. Currently, TSotW remains, joined by The Historian and the collected works of Philip Roth which I’m counting as a single unit because (a) they’re all awful; and (b) I didn’t want my Top 10 to be all Roth.]
24 September 2005
I don’t want to say that The Shadow of the Wind is the worst novel ever; I’ve read the latest John Irving, I’m still fairly young, and no doubt there are books in the future with black-hole dreams set to suck so hard my ears will pop. [Ed. note: For instance, Elizabeth Kostova’s mindnumbingly awful The Historian which I read several years after TSotW.] TSotW is, however, the most recent bad book I’ve read — hence, this email.
I belong to a monthly book group and TSotW is our next selection. My Spidey senses began tingling when I saw that the cover blurb was provided by Stephen King; however, I thought, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and so I started reading. Perhaps fortunately, the book began to be awful almost immediately, so there wasn’t this long, false courtship where I would think the book was going to be amazingly wonderful only to have it decompose voluptuously around the middle and race towards awful mediocrity the last couple hundred pages (The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Klay, I’m looking at you).
I flipped back to the first pages of the book, where the review blurbs live, and tried to learn what other people — people paid to read and know about books — thought about TSotW. That’s when I found your blurb:
“If you love A.S. Byatt’s Possession, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the short stories of Borges, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas or Paul Auster’s “New York” trilogy, not to mention Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, then you will love The Shadow of the Wind.”
While I hated Possession (the Scooby-Doo ending? In the cemetary? What was that? — though I will say that the coda was one of the lovelier things I’ve read in a novel), find Borges a slog, haven’t read Auster, and have never heard of Hjortsberg — those other guys are guys I like. A lot. One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of those magical reading experiences where, when I read the last page, I immediately turned back to the beginning and read it through again. The Name of the Rose is Eco’s only good book and maybe he needs to take a correspondence course taught by Harper Lee called “Quitting While You’re Ahead.” The Club Dumas was breathtakingly fun and angried up my blood at Roman Polanski all over again (shut up, stupid Ninth Gate). And as a 13-year-old, I cried harder at the death of Esmeralda and Quasimodo than I ever did at the death of Old Dan and Little Ann (and to be fair: I cried like a bitch at the death of Old Dan and Little Ann).
TSotW? Had none of the charms of any of these books. It was long, plodding, horribly written (or, possibly, badly translated — but more on that in a moment), and derivative — but not in the good way you opened your review with. Continually throughout the novel I kept thinking, “But I don’t care about any of these characters. And I don’t really understand why the characters care about themselves, each other, or the mystery they’ve been saddled with.” On page 387, with only 100 pages left to wade through, confronted with yet another long section written in italics for no reason whatsoever, I finally couldn’t take it any more. With a snarl worthy of Linda Blair I threw the book away from me and picked up Joyce Carol Oates’s The Falls.
Do you hear that? I was driven. To Joyce Carol Oates.
I vaguely remember reading your review of TSotW when it came out originally in Book World a year and a half ago. I may even have thought, “Hey, that sounds pretty good.” I also remembered, probably, that you had what I felt to be an unnatural love for Atonement, so I may have been wary. But overall, I enjoy reading your reviews and listen more to you than I do to Jonathan Yardley, say, or any of the book reviews in the New Yorker. (And not to be all Seinfeld about it, but what’s up with the New Yorker anyway? It’s a magazine I love, yet week after week they bat a perfectly awful 1.000 by choosing books to review that I have absolutely no interest in reading at all.)
But your review of this book is…strange. It’s clichéd to wonder this, but maybe you read a different book? At one point you write “Zafón — at least in the fine English of Lucia Graves — can also turn a witty phrase” — and yet, as far as I can tell, this translation is leaden and artless, as well as prone to grammatical mistakes (“older than me” as opposed to “older than I” is the example I turned to, bibliomancy style, just now; there was also an instance of “between you and I” rather than “between you and me” as well as many points where Ms. Graves choice of American idiom made no sense and halted the flow of the novel as I stopped to figure out where exactly she was trying to go). But all the blame can’t be placed on poor Lucia Graves: ultimately, I think, Carlos Ruiz Zafon is just a bad, bad, bad, bad writer.
The mystery isn’t interesting — Wilkie Collins writes circles around Zafon and could teach Zafon a thing or two about pacing. Heck, Dickens could teach Zafon a thing or two about pacing and secondary/tertiary characters. The novel has plot holes large enough to drive other novels through, providing alternate routes to much better stories. The story suffers from implausible bouts of exposition and irritatingly uninteresting characters. Plus, the novel ends before the pages do.
So, ultimately, I guess, what I want to know is why? Why did you recommend this book, Michael Dirda? Why did you tell me, “Anyone who enjoys novels that are scary, erotic, touching, tragic and thrilling should rush right out to the nearest bookstore and pick up The Shadow of the Wind. Really, you should.” Because that sounds like me, all right (except for the erotic part. Call me a prude, but I’ve yet to read a sex scene that didn’t stop the novel dead in its tracks and ruin the pacing) — and yet I hated this book in such a complete way, it’s like I’ve always hated it. All the things you said were to be expected from TSotW were missing from my copy and, I’m starting to think, had to have been missing from your copy as well. So what drew you to your conclusion? And, a year and a half later, do you still stand behind your original review?