Having just finished it, I can attest that this may have something to do with its boring as all get-out prologue. Seriously, four pages describing the island it’s set on and crab fishing, when we don’t yet care about the characters? Why did a writer as skillful as Paterson ever think that was a good idea?
Another possible explanation for my never having really cracked its spine in all the years it sat on my shelf is that, as I recall, the cover of my childhood edition strongly emphasized the biblical reference in the book’s title. Since I was totally unfamiliar with this*, the book became associated in my mind with Hard Things I Don’t Understand.
All of which is too bad, because it’s actually a great book. Shortly before reading it, I happened to read a discussion on writer Jennifer Hubbard’s blog about how good writing is about revealing emotions that we wouldn’t typically associate with an event, but that ring true when we read them. Or, as she put it much more pithily, “what it feels like instead of what it’s supposed to feel like.”** As it turns out, this is one of the things Paterson excels at in this book.
Here’s a handful of the tiny details that stuck out to me in this vein:
- “The pain in my arm became the only real thing, a sharp point of comfort in the midst of a nightmare.”
- “I was quite sure I was crazy, and it was amazing that as soon as I admitted it, I became quite calm.”
- “Call and Caroline were waving back and calling out to him, but I was standing there shivering, my arms crossed, my hands hooked up under my arms and pressed against my breasts.”
The biggest example, though, is a plot twist that I won’t spoil, but that definitely took me by surprise midway through the book. Suffice it to say that our protagonist develops an emotional response that I most certainly did not see coming, and that I think most authors would be hard-pressed to include today.
And speaking of things that felt dated (and I don’t necessarily mean that as an epithet): JACOB HAVE I LOVED follows its protagonist from age 13 until well into her adulthood. I think this would be a very rare choice today. Anyone got counterexamples, or a sense of whether I’m right or wrong that this this might have been more normal in the late ’70s/early ’80s?
* My most embarrassing story of how my childhood reading was distorted by my total ignorance of all things biblical: I was probably about nine when I first read Madeleine L’Engle’s MANY WATERS, and as I read this story about modern-day twins transported back to the dry, dry desert… living with a man who is the town laughingstock because he thinks God told him to build a big boat… a man named Noah… it did not occur to me that this was a retelling of Noah’s Ark until it actually occurred to the book’s main characters to speculate on this fact.
On the other hand, I did learn the story of Abraham from a very early age. Except, I think the part about how God said he wanted the killing done out on Highway 61 may have been embellished.
** It took a mighty effort to repress a MY SO-CALLED LIFE reference here. Bonus points to anyone (besides Emily!) who can identify it in the comments.