[“Read This, Not That” is a new occasional column in which we unmask an overhyped book and recommend a similar, better book to read instead. You can follow it here, or follow all our ongoing features here.]
Petterson’s latest novel has been gushed and fawned over endlessly in the past few months, praised for its starkness and cold austerity. I did not like Curse at all, because it’s stark and coldly austere. I suppose I should’ve seen that coming, but it’s possible to portray depression and malaise without boring the stuffing out of your reader. Petterson chooses to bore you.
Curse is an atmospheric novel about a recently divorced 37-year-old Communist who doesn’t get along with his mother, though he loves her. There, you’re done. There are nearly zero other surprises left in store in the rest of the book, and no complexities in the main character makes for a pretty boring character study.
Baldwin’s first novel has likewise gotten some press, and likewise concerns the ruminations of a man whose life has not gone well. In this case, it’s a sixty-something scientist whose wife died a few years back. He finds notes she wrote to her therapist and agonizingly relives his failures as a husband.
Lost is nuanced and complex, heartbreaking and richly textured. Although it’s not an outstanding novel, it’s compelling. And that, quite simply, is what I’m looking for, atmospheric character study or no.
Read this, bonus: The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford
My favorite atmospheric character study, The Sportswriter, takes place over a single weekend and consists mostly of interior monologue. It’s riveting and superb.