By November 21, 2009 3 Comments Read More →

People We Don’t Like

“Are we led to dislike these characters or feel compassion toward them?”

This is a question I came across in some book discussion material I found on the Internet, and it has stayed with me as I have continued to read books for discussion programs and prepare for the meetings.  It has always seemed to me that readers do not connect strongly to books in which the major characters are unlikable, and they come into the discussion feeling vexed and even outraged about the choice of the book.  It is then the challenge of the discussion leader to persuade them to think about the author’s intent in creating these unappealing people and also to encourage them to consider the characters’ flaws and why they are worth talking about.

I haven’t participated in a discussion of Janice Y. K. Lee’s recent novel, The Piano Teacher, which Misha wrote about in a post on this blog earlier in the year.  But I have just finished reading it, and while I agree with her that it is a “pageturner,” I was also struck by the impression that virtually all of the characters in the book (even the minor ones) are unappealing.  So now I am wondering how well it would work for a discussion, and maybe some of you Buzz readers out there who have discussed it in a group will write in to comment.

What I would say about the characters in this story of life in Hong Kong before, during, and after the Second World War is that they are well drawn, and we do feel that we understand why they are so damaged, so hurtful to each other, and ultimately, so miserable.  The setting of the novel is also extremely well presented, and I think, one of the strongest reasons for reading the book.  You do get a real sense of what it was like to be in that place at that time, and you feel empathy for the people in the story, even though they are filled with self-loathing and extremely cruel to each other.

Will is an Englishman who at the beginning of the story swims in Hong Kong’s high society and falls into an affair with Trudy, a beautiful but incredibly shallow and self-centered Eurasian woman.  The novel swings back and forth in time, and in the future, after the war, Will is now working as a chauffeur for the Chinese socialites he formerly partied with and is involved with another woman, a piano teacher named Claire, who like him, is English, but is married and is also a kleptomaniac.  As the story progresses, the reader wants to know what happened to Trudy, unlikable though she may be, because there is also something rather fascinating about her — she seems at turns naive and crafty, and she plays a very dangerous game.  And of course, we sense things won’t turn out well for Will and Claire, and there is a part of us that doesn’t care that much because he is so cold and indifferent and she is so unstable and devious.

I don’t know if I have convinced you to spend time with these people, because you can see that I am quite ambivalent about the book.  In the end, I think it goes on perhaps a bit too long, and I’m not sure Yee knew how she was going to wrap it up.  But I did find her to be an interesting writer, particularly in regard to her choice of  time and place and her ability to describe dramatic situations.  I will probably read her next book.  I’d like to see if she could create someone I’d actually want to meet.



About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

3 Comments on "People We Don’t Like"

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  1.' Brenda O'Brien says:

    One of my book groups recently discussed Olive Kitteridge. They’re still talking about it, even people who didn’t come to the discussion. They mostly dislike the prickly, complex Olive, but they certainly find her fascinating. They also talk about how the connected short stories written over a long time period is a different reading experience than a novel.

  2. How many people in real life are actually likeable? I believe that it is our duty to try and see the good in everyone. It is much too simplistic to see people or characters in our real life as all good or all bad. We all are trying to make sense of the world we live in and some choose to be self serving in most of their relations with others while others are self sacrificing and serve others. I like to read books where characters have flaws but their flaws are explained, but not excused by the authors. That makes for an intersting character in my estimation. Thus, Malfoy in the Harry Potter books can not be seen as utterly evil, or even Tom Riddle/Valdemort, because they are the way they are as a result of their circumstances. This does not excuse their choices, but it does make one more empathetic towards their choices. I also think that it causes us to be more thoughtful of others and not condemning of them as persons, whether that be in real life or as characters in a book.

  3.' j cisneros says:

    I just yesterday had a discussion with a friend about Olive Kitteridge’s likability. Neither of us liked her a whole lot, but both found we shared with Olive many unlikable personality traits. Maybe that’s why Olive holds such interest; she’s sso like all of us.

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