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Sunday, July 19, 2009

What I'm Reading: Netherland

One of the best reviewed books of 2008 was Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. It just came out in paperback and all of the advertisements reminded me that I had not read it yet. Well, I have read it now, and, all I have to say is, I wish I had skipped it.

I felt bad about this, like I missed something. But no, I got the whole thing that it is a take of on The Great Gatsby. But, although I enjoyed Fitzgerald's book, I did not love it enough to care about the connections here. However, there are many readers for whom this would be an appeal. So, to help those readers, I found someone who did love this aspect. Here is a good essay from Fresh Air on why this novel does work as a tribute to The Great Gatsby.

Here is the basic plot. A guy named Hans (our narrator), is a Dutch citizen living in England with his wife and kid. He is a oil industry analyst and she is a lawyer. They move to NYC and are living near ground zero on 9/11. Hans' wife and kid go back to England after the attacks and Hans stays in NY.

Here's my first problem with the book, the issues between Hans and his wife make no sense. She is not developed as a character and their marital discord has no resonance. I had no idea why she left her husband and have even less of an idea of why she got back with him.

The story follows Hans' time living in NY in the Chelsea hotel. He does encounter a group of foreigners (West Indians and South East Asians) who play cricket every weekend in Staten Island. Through his association with the cricket club he meets Chuck Ramkissoon. Hans get swept into Chuck's world of shading dealings and his dreams of building a grand cricket stadium in Brooklyn.

The reader is told at the beginning, as Hans is looking back on his time in NYC, that Chuck will be killed. So as I read, I was excited to find out what happened to Chuck, who, as the book slowly builds, becomes more and more a part of Hans' life. But then....nothing! Hans finds out Chuck was murdered and the police say if will never be solved. The End?!?

This books was full of promising details that don't pay off; details about cricket, the interesting occupants of the Chelsea hotel, and Chuck and his life. I love details in a book, but they have to pay off. This was very frustrating to me as a reader. Take Kate Atkinson's wonderfully detailed Behind the Scenes at the Museum. This book is just as complex and "intelligent" (a word used by Publisher's Weekly to describe Netherland) as Netherland, but it all pays off in Atkinson's work. She rewards you for paying attention throughout with a satisfying conclusion, that uses all of those carefully built in details in the resolution of the plot.

Maybe that is my problem with Netherland, I simply found it too amorphous. It had no definite style, and, as a result, the jumping around in time and Hans' penchant for losing his train of thought, did not work for me as a reader.

Readalikes: Obviously, I would give Netherland to fans of The Great Gatsby, or any readers who are fans of the re-imagining of a classic book. Personally though, I much prefer the pairing of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Finn by Jon Clinch, which retells Huck's story through his father's eyes.. I wrote about reading Finn here.

If you want to read another well received book from 2008 with a Western European perspective, I would suggest The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Frenchwoman, Muriel Barbery.

Two other universally praised books of the last year that I have read and loved were Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Both of these would also be good readalikes for Netherland.

Netherland is marketed as "the post-9/11 novel we have been waiting for." I would argue that we already had a better one, 2007's Falling Man by Don DeLillo.

Readers may also want to explore more books about cricket, the Netherlands (the country), and post 9/11 New York after reading this novel. You can use the embedded links for listings of further reading.

I just want to end by saying that this just goes to show you that not everyone will like every book. And, just because a book seems to be universally praised, does not mean you HAVE to like it too.

Keep Reading!

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