What is it that makes a book good or bad? How do we decide if we like it, and whether to recommend it? It depends, of course, in part, on what we were looking for. On whether the book resonates, whether it engages us. Whether it changes us in some way, makes us think or feel. Every book is different, and even the same book is different which each rereading, and over time, as our experiences and outlooks change.
Last night I told my partner that the book I was currently reading, While I was Gone, by Sue Miller, disturbed me. The grammar checker said to write the last sentence that way, so it I did, but in truth, my original wording might be more accurate. The book did not disturb me; I was disturbed by the book.
I had purchased the book at a used bookstore because, in part, I had met the author when she spoke at my college. (This was not that long ago; I was an “adult” student.) (I should have bought the book new, so she would have gotten her due, her small cut. But I’m unemployed, a paltry excuse. If I were to write a book, I would need an income from it. I would want people to buy it, since I am otherwise unemployed, since writing would be my job and an income is appropriate for a job.)
I was disturbed by the book because it seemed as if a woman, Jo Becker, who loved her husband and was happy in her life was about to begin an affair. I was terrified by this because I want my own marriage to not be blemished by infidelity, and it seems so casual, so easy, and the wounds so deep. My partner suggested I put the book down and “stop reading fiction.” I did not and will not. But I was uncomfortable and unhappy while reading the book. Scared for the protagonists, scared for my partner and myself. The fear came from inside me. And yet, she manufactured that fear, she, Sue Miller. She shaped it. She related it to a universal fear. She disturbed me, with her book.
The back-story was familiar to me: life in a group home, a sort of commune, during the sixties. Things had gone terribly wrong. I enjoyed reading about life in the group home because it brought back memories of my younger days. The intensity, the idealism. And the story was compelling. Spellbinding. I didn’t want to leave it to do the necessary things in my life. (Now there’s a good reason not to read fiction!)
I don’t want to give away the ending. I hate it when reviewers do that. I liked the book. It was “good.” It engaged me, it resonated for me, it terrified me. Would I recommend it? Not for light reading. Not for escapism. Not for the pat kind of happy ending. But for an engaging read, yes. I would. I would definitely recommend it.