The ladies in my book club, who I adore almost unconditionally, encouraged the group to read a particular book. It’s a fictionalized account of an author and his first wife, and that’s hopefully the most telling detail I’ll reveal about it.
In case you can’t tell, I hated it. Got halfway through and realized I didn’t care about the characters — and this was a character-driven book. In fact, I hated the two main characters. Loathed them, even.
I’d been warned: The book could be a trigger book. The husband could be demanding and a bastard. A cheater, which wasn’t news. And the wife was passive. Hubby’s out of town? She moons for him. Had no life other than him. And then she gets pregnant and… is passive about that, too. Not even passive aggressive. Just passive. Completely devoid of emotion.
It’s hard to read and sympathize with a passive character. It’s even harder — for me, at least — to empathize with a passive character. Maybe it’s because commercial fiction — which this wasn’t. It’s firmly in the women’s fiction category — is full of strong, take-charge women.
But then I think back to a collection of short stories I read in grad school, back before the trend for women to kick butt first and take names later. I had the same reaction, and that was how many years ago? Clearly, my reaction has little to do with the past fifteen years and the past five in particular.
Maybe it’s my tastes. Maybe it’s that I was eight years old when a woman with cinnamon buns on either side of her head grabbed the gun out of her (to be revealed) twin brother’s hands and turned the whole idea of rescuing the princess on its head. Right then, I learned that women don’t have to be passive — and that we shouldn’t be.
Yeah, okay, love makes a girl do weird things sometimes (raising the question if it’s even love), but this book? The female character was passive from the get-go. Mommy decided she was too fragile to be allowed out of the house. So the character shut up and let herself be treated that way. Compliant. No escapes into the garden to prove Mommy wrong.
Ick. Just not my type of woman.
And the husband? There was no depth to him, no feeling that he was a real, live, breathing person. The worst part is that in this case, he was! But he never transcended being words on a page. He lacked dimension — but given that the book was told from the point of view of this passive woman, is that a surprise? A bland narrator will turn everything else around her into the same shade of monotone grey.
Including the setting. They travelled all over the world, these two. They were real people. They truly did this. Yet — and you can probably anticipate what I’m going to say — the settings blended into each other. The gritty and the gorgeous, it all had the same tone to it.
It was like eating unflavored oatmeal with too much water in it. Or paste.
To make matters worse, chapters tended to end with that heart-wrenching twist that manipulates the reader. Even without the visual cue that a chapter was ending (you know: the white space at the bottom of the page), a sharp reader can tell it’s coming. The tone of the narrative changes.
A sharp reader can tell they are being manipulated. And sharp readers generally don’t like to be manipulated, even in the name of literary brilliance.
So I’m declaring this one a failure. And I’m going to issue an appeal to my writer friends: don’t do this. Your readers need to be able to identify with your characters, and those characters need to be alive, so alive that when the reader puts the book down, they miss them.
I daresay not many people miss passive people.