An occasional viewer of ABC’s First Tuesday Bookclub, I tuned in the other month to see the “classic” up for review was Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Having nursed a fierce loathing for that novel since studying it for English in year 10, I watched, somewhat in the hope of having my opinion confirmed. Obviously I knew by then that teachers don’t intentionally assign books students will hate, but I was still surprised when a majority of the panel loved it. “To reject this book,” one panelist gushed (to paraphrase), “is to reject the nourishment of life.”
To clarify, I wasn’t one of those students who refused to read assigned texts. I didn’t, either, automatically hate assigned texts. I actively enjoyed reading and analysing most of the set books*. On learning a friend in the literature class* had to write an essay on 1984, I became very excited and volunteered to write it for her*. Nonetheless, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is one of the three assigned books I hated with a passion. They were as follows:
1. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler (Knopf, 1982. ISBN 0-394-52381-4)
Like the other books on this list, I at least recognised even while reading it back then, the literary merit of this Pulitzer-nominated novel. I just disliked it. This story of the three Tull children and their awful mother seemed impossibly bleak. Familial problems persisted through generations. Dreams withered. Everybody settled for less than they’d hoped for. The novel described the kinds of wearing, dull lives I had an absolute (and understandable) horror of. The characters were flawed and scarred and terrifying to read about. Nobody seemed relatable.
I don’t remember the plot. It was episodic in nature and cycled through time in a very interesting way. I just remember a steady sense of the hopelessness of these peoples’ desperate American lives. It went beyond ennui.
With all that in mind, it’s possible to conclude that I read this book at completely the wrong time. I am still baffled as to why it was assigned for high schoolers, who already nurse fears they’re going to live boring little lives and die alone and unmissed. This book served to cement that fear in the minds of many of my classmates. If I read it again in 20 years, I might find something more in common with the miserable characters, whose ambition and lust for life have been eroded by cruel experience–but god, I really hope not.
2. Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape, 1997. ISBN 0-224-05031-1)
Another seemingly odd choice for high school reading, Enduring Love is about professional, married Joe Rose, who attracts an unlikely admirer in younger, lower class Jed Parry. It’s also about a lot of other things: relationships, trauma responses, the desire for children, the faults in human memory. It was adapted into a film starring Daniel Craig which was released fortuitously the year we studied it, so it must have been well-liked. I don’t remember the film; I watched it on an airplane and fainted halfway through, then was excused from seeing it at the cinema in case I fainted again.
Since I feared Enduring Love might have poisoned Ian McEwan for me forever, I read Atonement only hesitantly. I loved it. So I can probably put my dislike of Enduring Love down, again, to simply reading it at the wrong time. I found the main character impossible to relate to. I was a Rammstein-and-Tolkien-obsessed girl; Joe Rose was a middle-aged, cerebral professional who didn’t care for music. His voice and story were too far removed from my own experience.
If I reread Enduring Love now, there’s a good chance I might enjoy it. The plot is certainly interesting, and several fascinating concepts are explored. Joe Rose begins to doubt himself and his own narrative about his relationship with the obsessive and likely dangerous Jed. Perhaps I shall try it again.
3. The Children’s Bach, by Helen Garner (McPhee Gribble, 1984. ISBN 0-86914-029-9)
I maintain a virulent and undying hatred for this book. I did read it–but since I hated it even from the first page I succeeded in finishing it in one awful afternoon. As a consequence I can’t remember the plot or the characters, except for hazy recollections that they were middle class Melbournites. The writing is no doubt excellent, if one likes Helen Garner’s spare style. There were musical allusions, as implied by the title, that I did not understand, though our literature teacher did talk a lot about the concept of “fugue”. The novella is told in a series of vignettes, which is a method I am quite fond of. I am probably a philistine for rejecting this book so completely. Nonetheless, something in it just repelled me.
Having swallowed it in one afternoon I was appalled when the assessment relating to the novella was a painting of scene or object occurring in it. I think I painted a table with a vase on it; I didn’t even want to flick through and find a likely scene.
I haven’t attempted to read any of Helen Garner’s other work, out of fear I may suffer a similar reaction. One day I might. I may even discover The Children’s Bach is not so repelling to me as I found it back then. For the time being, I’ve had to put the book in the category of things for which I have an unreasoning hatred, like the colour peach, stir-fry, and circles. I can offer no explanations.
*That said, I wasn’t a good student. I spent 90% of my time “taking notes” in class. By which I mean, writing copious amounts of fiction.
*I couldn’t study literature that year, as I had a timetable clash.
*The statute of limitations having come into effect, I will say I did write it. I got her quite a decent mark.