I eagerly picked up The Red House when I saw it in the library, and realized it was by Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I wondered if it could really be as good as that book, and was afraid it wouldn’t be (based on past experience of finding one wonderful book by an author and being disappointed with others). But I had to check it out.
I’m not sure I would have finished the book if it had been by an author I had read and enjoyed previously. What is supposed to be the appeal of reading about family members who don’t much like each other and frankly aren’t all that likable?
I suppose it is realistic in that it portrays flaws in all the characters, rather than some being “good guys” and others “bad guys” or at least “not-so-good guys.” And we are all flawed people, however much we try to keep those flaws in the background if not hidden. But is the point of a novel to depict what I can see easily enough in everyday life?
The book description on the inside flap of the dust jacket calls it “a literary tour-de-force that illuminates the puzzle of family in a profoundly empathetic manner.” I suppose it can be called illumining to shed light in dark places, but I look for more in a book than to see what people are really like.
The description also claims, “As we come to know each character they become profoundly real to us. We understand them, even as we come to realize they will never fully understand each other, which is the tragicomedy of every family.” I admit that, by the end of the book, my distaste for the characters had lessened. If I were to meet them in real life, there are a few I could perhaps want to get to know.
I remember reading a sci-fi story, a long time ago, in which someone with telepathic powers could know someone else as fully as the person knew himself. Rather than alienating the other person, this intimate knowledge led to a very close relationship.
Perhaps the idea is supposed to be that knowing what people are really like leads to caring about them. I suppose it often happens that way in real life – if only because the people we spend enough time around to really get to know well are those to whom we are already attracted or have a commitment to.
But in real life, one reason I am willing to get to know someone, warts and all, is that there is a real relationship there, and we can do something that matters for each other or for other people. I don’t particularly want to know what messed up lives people have when I have no relationship with them.
And there is no real relationship between myself and fictional characters in a book. I have sometimes read books where I wished I could have gotten to know one of the characters. But of course it can’t happen.
I read novels sometimes for entertainment, sometimes for inspiration and encouragement (such as Jan Karon’s Mitford series). I expect characters to have flaws – they would hardly be realistic otherwise – but I also expect at least some of them to show wisdom, courage, self-sacrifice, or other qualities that lift the story above the level of soap opera drama.
The eight characters in this book do sometimes show positive qualities. They do try to get along as family, and to sometimes put others’ needs above their own. But they show little strength of character, reacting to conflict either by lashing out at one another or withdrawing behind a pretense that everything is OK. They are sorry for their failures, but being sorry doesn’t fix much.
I’m afraid that the review of this book that I liked the most is one from The New York Times that sums it up by saying The Red House “reads as if it were written to silence those critics who damn Haddon with the faint praise of being too ‘readable.’ Mission accomplished.”