Don’t judge a book by its cover—especially when it’s so pretty

In dark, cold and sometimes lonely days of December when I was still struggling to get my bearings at a new job and location, I went on a book binge at Barnes & Noble. After just 40 minutes of browsing (recording timing for me), I walked away with Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Swamplandia!, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and The Happiness Project. I made it through the Ghost of Christmas Past in the first (two to ghosts to go for next Christmas), and relished reading the last item in January — a book about appreciating and making the most of life really was an ideal pick to start the year right. However, the second novel on the list has plagued me for months.

The original cover—charming and light

Swamplandia! What whimsical cover art and an enchanting hook: A family of alligator wrestlers living in the Florida Glades struggling to save their theme park from a new competitor while coping with the mother’s untimely passing. Praise from NYT and Carl Hiaasen along with author Karen Russell’s rising star as one of The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40,” only made the bait even more alluring.

I should have known better from the last few words of the summary, “that takes us to the shimmering edge of reality.” I used to think I liked magical realism, but after forcing myself to finish Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence and toiling through the first part of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude only to give up on page 80.

One thing I am loath to do is not finish a book, particularly one I can tell is well-written. After investing a good amount of time in the story and characters, it just seems like a waste to not see it through to the end. My stubbornness to stick with these sort of books can be rewarding in some cases, but can also be an exercise in frustration. For this specific case, I’ve finally realizing (after three-plus months) that despite the expert craftsmanship, astoundingly unique setting and characters, Swamplandia! just doesn’t mesh with my taste. Even Russell noted in an interview:

“I think that different pleasures work for different readers. I tend to care less about plot, but I’m a sucker for humor and strangeness.”

As with Márquez, I am awestruck by the dazzling way she can describes the quotidien and the skill with which she fleshes out characters that are anything but ordinary. But at page 198, I’ve come to realize that I prefer my novels to be more full-bodied when it comes to plot with just a splash of strange.

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3 thoughts on “Don’t judge a book by its cover—especially when it’s so pretty

  1. I love Marquez because I can really get into the magical realism he creates – I much prefer his short stories though. I have heard your opinion a lot about Swamlandia! I love her short stories though too so I think I will give it a try – hopefully won’t take me three-plus months though, but….ya never know. I’m a reader like you – I always finish a book even when it totally isn’t worth it. If it takes me 3-plus, 3-plus it is. BAH!

    • You’ll have to let me know what you think (and if it takes you as long as me!) One reviewer on Good Reads said that she loved Russell’s short stories, but not Swamplandia! Maybe I should give them a try? Now that you mention it, the magical realism I’ve enjoyed has come in smaller bursts, like a Borges short story…

      • You should. A few of them are free online and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is really wonderful. It’s a bit slow in parts and in the longer stories, but it’s a good collection.

        I love Borges – Man with Enormous Wings. Just love it.

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