Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review: The English Patient

Summary: With unsettling beauty and intelligence, Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II.

The nurse Hana, exhausted by death, obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself. And at the center of his labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions—and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning. -- Vintage

This month, my on-line book club decided to read THE ENGLISH PATIENT by Michael Ondaatje. I was really looking forward to reading it since this book has been sitting on my bookshelves for over 10 years. I admit that I had high expectations since I knew this book had won the Man Booker Prize, and many people think say it's one of their favorites. After finishing this novel, I can definitely say that I'm glad I read it; but I don't think it goes down as one of my all-time favorites.

I feel like something might be wrong with me because I didn't love this book. I kept asking myself what was wrong with me -- what was I missing? I did feel a little better when I found some others on Twitter who agreed with me that the book was a little hard to get into. I think I had problems connecting to the characters; and I even wonder if the writing style kept me from
actually becoming absorbed in the story. (plus, I just felt it read very slowly.) The author also backed into the story, and it wasn't until the end of the book where everything came together -- I found myself a little confused at times.

While I enjoyed this book, it wasn't until the second half that I really understood what all of the praise was about. Don't get me wrong - from the first paragraph, I knew the writing was something very special. Mr. Ondaatje's descriptions are just incredible, and I could almost "see" the villa and the characters. My problem was that I just didn't love the story or the characters. It wasn't like I wanted to quit reading -- it was more like I just wasn't dying to go back to the book after I put it down. However, I can honestly say that I am very glad I kept with it because THE ENGLISH PATIENT was a beautiful and deeply touching story.

By the end of the book, I did feel a connection with the characters especially Hana and Kip. They both were so young and had seen and experienced so much pain in their lives. I was glad that they found some comfort in each other, and I think their relationship helped them both to heal. I thought the author did an amazing job of developing both of their characters and allowing the reader to actually "feel" the devastating effects that the war had on each of them. I also enjoyed that I saw a glimpse (albeit brief) of them in the future.

One thing that I really appreciated about this book (besides the lyrical writing) was how everything came together in the end. At times, I wasn't too sure where the novel was going and how everything was going to work out; but I have to say that I thought it was brilliant how the story lines were all tied up. I loved how the author interwove the characters' pasts; and I definitely was surprised with a few of the associations -- parts of this story were almost a mystery.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT was a difficult book for me to read because so much of the story was incredibly sad. Naturally a book about the effects of a war is going to be depressing, but I liked that the book was also about love. There were actually two love stories woven into this novel that showed that even in hard times, the love of another can help someone cope. I truly appreciated that the love stories and relationships were very honest and not at all overdone.

I also really enjoyed how much this book made me think. Not only did I find myself thinking about each of the characters, but I also like that the author showed that people and events aren't always what they appear to be at first glance. Once you spend the time to really learn about a person, you can discover so much more about them and even appreciate their differences. There were quite a few powerful messages in this novel. One that I walked away with is that "life is not black and white, but rather many shades of grey."

I am very excited to discuss this book later on today. There is a terrific reading guide which I hope we'll use to start some of our discussion. I read over the questions and they really do give the reader a lot to think about. I think it's going to not only be interesting to hear whether everyone enjoyed the book, but also to learn what they think about the characters and their actions. There are also so many deep themes to discuss such as Hana's relationship with all three men (as well as her father) and the effects the war had on each character.

I'm kind of torn really recommending this book to everyone. I know quite a few readers who will love the story and the writing style; however, I also know a few friends who will not enjoy the pace of the book. It is no doubt a beautifully written novel that will touch your heart; and the characters will continue to haunt your thoughts for quite awhile after finishing the book. I do recommend it for books clubs that are looking for a literary book that has a lot of deep issues to explore.


Meghan said...

I mostly agree with you! It was slow to start and I only really started to like it when the story lines started to connect in the last 100 pages. I have that reading guide, so I hope we can find a lot to discuss.

bermudaonion said...

I didn't love this book either. It was too slow and I didn't connect with the characters either. If there's something wrong with you, I have the same thing wrong with me.

Gwendolyn B. said...

I haven't read this book, and maybe some day I will. There are times when I like a story that is told slowly, but I can see that it would not be for everybody. Thanks for your thoughts.

Beth F said...

Excellent review. I started connecting at about 100 pages, but then I drifted again. But like you, I'm so happy that I read it because there are some scenes and some aspects of the book that definitely stick with you.

Alyce said...

I'm curious to see if this is one I'll like. It's on my list to read sometime (in the next five years). LOL! Great review!

Marie Cloutier said...

there's nothing wrong with you! i'm one of those who loved the book but nothing is for everybody. but it sounds like it was a positive experience for you on many levels too so that's great.

Lisa said...

I've seen the movie many times. After the first time, I still felt very confused about what exactly, had happened. Apparently that must be because it was so well based on the book. But now I really love the movie; having that background, would, I think, help someone enjoy the book more.

Unknown said...

I found your review on Twitter. I'm Rob. :)

Just wanted to add my thoughts on the book. I liked it the first time I read it, but - like you - felt confused most of the way through it until the end. The SECOND time I read it, I thought it was one of the greatest books I've ever read.

Armed with the knowledge of how it all ties together, everything in the beginning takes on a new meaning.


Kelly Simmons said...

Oh, the first half of that book is a mess! It made me angry, it was so disorganized. But the second half is beautiful. Where was the editor, eh? I think the reason so many women love this movie is that it clarified the book for them.

Anna said...

I have this book but haven't read it yet. I was thinking about pulling it out for the WWII challenge, but maybe I'll hold off. Would it be okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations?

Diary of an Eccentric

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S. Krishna said...

Amazing review. I felt like you said everything that I couldn't find the words to say.