Surrender: When Do You?

When do you give up on a book you don’t like?

It’s been so long since I’ve abandoned a book partway in, I’d forgotten how hard it is. I always worry that I’m missing something by not finishing, or doing a disservice to the author, except in cases where it’s plain the author didn’t invest much herself. (Rare.)

But . . . why suffer?

This week, I’ve already abandoned one book and am on the verge of relinquishing another.

The first, David Whyte’s The Three Marriages, I surrendered at page 105. I love Whyte’s poetry, mainly for its wisdom about being, and I was eager to read this work of nonfiction, in which he sets out to illuminate what he views as our three most important relationships: to a partner, to work, and to the self.

I think I was less shocked by the book’s gender essentialism (Whyte is deeply steeped in classic mythology as well as Victorian literature) than by its incoherence. I mean, it kind of doesn’t make any sense. I don’t even know exactly what Whyte is saying, beyond¬† a) it’s important to have relationships with a partner, work, and self, and b) a man falling in “love” with a woman at first sight and then whipping up said love into a frothy obsession is somehow not merely literary but also actual and real and right.

I believe the word for that is: claptrap.

The other book, appropriately enough, is The Surrendered, the latest novel by Chang-Rae Lee. I have a complicated relationship with Lee. Here’s why: 1) Aloft: genius. 2) Native Speaker: solidly good. 3) A Gesture Life: frighteningly vague in its moral compass.

I don’t want to sound drama-queeny (okay, I totally do), but I found A Gesture Life, which involves the stories of the so-called “comfort” women in WWII Japan, actually kind of traumatizing. On the one hand, it’s clear that were meant to experience the horror of the military brothels, in which young Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Philippina women were forced to “service” 10 – 20¬† men a night.

On the other, the protagonist is a doctor who supposedly shows compassion to the women but meanwhile convinces himself he is in love with one of them (naturally, the “pure,” conventionally beautiful one who is not only a virgin but is also reserved for the head officer and therefore “unsullied” by all that unsightly rape) and then (SPOILER ALERT) ends up having sex with her anyway, when she’s at her most vulnerable.

As if this weren’t enough, we’re also asked to sympathize when, as an older, single man in America, that same doctor adopts a young Korean girl.

It just—how many heebee-jeebees do you have?

So here we are with The Surrendered, and it is also a war novel, and there is plenty of graphic violence and scenes I wish I hadn’t read, already at page 135. Worse, there’s only one character who might be sympathetic, and we left her story a while back.

Time to give up?

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