An Unfeeling Reader

Lucy Grealy‘s Autobiography of a Face is on most short lists of best memoirs. Grealy became modestly famous from her story at the time it was published.

While I can’t say I didn’t enjoy reading it or sympathize with the girl who suffered so much, it didn’t affect me–reach me or touch me–the way it seems to affect most readers. I slightly pulled back from Grealy at times as I read the book. That’s kind of horrifying for me to think about because what happens to the young Grealy in the story is tragic: Grealy had cancer as a child and lost part of her jaw to the disease, growing up with a disfigured face.

Photo by Wikipedia

Photo by Wikipedia

As I try to look through the book to give you an idea of why I felt lukewarm, I can’t find any clues–although it seems to me that the world through her eyes didn’t seem like a world I know or a way that I connect with the world. Skimming the book, I realize I need to read it again. Maybe it was me. I want to be fair. I want to be accurate. I’ll toss it on the pile of unread books!

What I learned from this book: sometimes you need to read a book more than once to understand how and why you respond the way you do. I want to learn more about what makes a book engaging or important to me.

Has anyone else read this book? If so, were you completely drawn in?

Stay tuned for Wednesday’s post where I share what I learned from Ann Patchett’s book about her friendship with Lucy Grealy!


Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

28 responses to “An Unfeeling Reader

  1. This is a deeply complicated, and not particulalry honest, book. I strongly suggest reading Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, which was written in response.

    • Luanne

      As you say below, yes, definitely Patchett’s book! But the weird thing is that I didn’t read Patchett’s book until later, and so did I somehow intuit or read clues in Grealy’s book that made me not trust her?

  2. sarahemc2

    Oops. Ignore my earlier comment. The note below the photograph didn’t initially appear in my browser!

  3. You are more determined than I to figure out why a book doesn’t “click”. I will often mull over what I’ve read, but if it didn’t catch the first time around, I likely won’t read it again. Of course, I have reread books many years later and learned new things, but that happens with books that I enjoyed the first time around. There’s just so much to read!

    • Luanne

      Michelle, I’m usually like you. I don’t even always finish a book. But in this case, since so many people respond s o well to it, I am wondering why I feel the way I do and why they feel the way they do. But it’s possible that it might lie with what Sarah above mentions. Maybe I sensed a dishonesty? But how could I? Where does it leak out in the book, if it does? I want to see what is going on :)!

  4. Your response to the book at least makes me curious about it….

  5. I read the book long ago. I remember liking it a lot, but I don’t remember specifics. Maybe I will have to put it on my re-read list, too!

    • Luanne

      Interesting that you don’t remember the specifics, Rachael. Maybe that itself is telling?

      • I have an extremely short-term memory when it comes to books 🙂 I think I read too quickly and therefore it doesn’t really settle in. I have this problem with all books except the ones I’ve reread several times.

        • Luanne

          I used to do that. Then I got burned out from teaching lit (and hence the real burnout was with reading) and now that I am reading again I am a slow reader–too slow, but I have better recall now than when I was such a fast reader that I skipped whole paragraphs without realizing it.

  6. I’ve re-read books I loved, and they fell flat. So I do believe our reaction to books depends on where we are in life when we read them. That said, it seems this book, which I haven’t read, might have some flaws you picked up on. I’d be interested in what you find out.

    • Luanne

      Me too, Ellen! Too bad my pile of unread books is so tall, but I suspect re-reading Grealy’s book will be good homework for me.
      Reading another blog this morning, I was wondering about re-reading a book I loved as a teen (in this case it was Wuthering Heights). I have a feeling that today I would find it kind of “flat,” as you say.

    • I agree with you Ellen – a case in point, when I first picked up Michael Ondaatje’s “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” I couldn’t get into it. The next time I tried to read it, I was enthralled and read it walking down the halls of the institute where I worked, leaning against the lab counters, grabbing every second I could to drink it in. I recently picked it up again to peruse it and wondered if I would love it as much as I had that time. I suspect not…that was a different time and I was a different “I.”

  7. We all have different reactions to books. Often, it depends on our connections and associations, whether we are drawn in. Sometimes it’s the author’s writing skills or lack of them. Sometimes it just isn’t a subject we’re particularly interested in, but someone else will find it enthralling. Don’t blame yourself for not “clicking” with a book. There is so much to read out there, I don’t have time to read a book twice. I admire you for the stamina and determination it takes to do that.

    • Luanne

      Anneli, it is true that we just won’t click with certain books and others will. And the same thing is true with movies, most likely. In this case, it bugs me because on the surface the book appears to be a very well-written memoir and was so well-received. And it bugs me that I didn’t have more sympathy for her horrible experience. Ann Patchett’s book might explain some of it, but I want to go back and see how the book was put together and what kept me from swallowing it entirely.

  8. I don’t have the patience to look at books that don’t work for me. If it is similar genre to what you are working on, well, then I can see it. But it might be timing of when you read it, too. Sometimes I have unlimited empathy/sympathy. Other times I am “fresh out.”

  9. I’ve never read this book, but I admire you for reading it again in case your missed something. I’ve never read a book for a second time. If I didn’t like it the first time, I won’t re-read it and often I won’t purchase another book by that author, if it’s fiction. Am I being too harsh, Luanne? 🙂 There’s just so many books to read…

  10. I read Grealy’s book a long time ago, perhaps when it first came out. I found the idea of the story compelling: a female child not only having to be treated for cancer but being left disfigured by it. I remember the sections where she described how sick she would be after her treatments. I also remember that she described going through a promiscuous period as a young woman, anything to make her feel beautiful, or at least accepted by men. I no longer have a copy of the book, but, finally, I remember feeling that her tone seemed matter-of-fact, distant, perhaps even cold, clinical. Maybe (and just maybe since I have only vague memories) the hard shell she had to build around herself to survive her childhood and then those teenage years when it’s bad enough to look different, but how much worse to look “ugly,” maybe that shell is thick and hard enough to keep the reader at a distance as well. We’re allowed to see enough to be curious, but not to be sympathetic. It will be interesting to read your post on Patchett and Grealy. And maybe I should take another look at Grealy’s book 😉

  11. I’m so glad you brought this up. I’ve had this reaction to popular books too, even ones that on the surface, I should have loved. I had that response to Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. I read it and though there are parts I loved and related to, something about it just didn’t hit me deep in the soul, like it did for others. We are such complex beings, with varied experiences and backgrounds, that I’m sure you’ll never be able to answer your own question. And neither will I. I don’t know why we think that certain books “should” resonate – silly really. Don’t you think?

  12. Kev

    Yes, I’ve found that sometimes a book does need to be read more than once. There are times however, when I simple cannot get into a book.

  13. Luanne,
    Once again we are on the same page, as it were. I recently tried to read it and could not get through it. I read only the first three chapters. I found the protagonist (the author in this case) to be a very unsympathetic character and it was the tone of her narrative that I did not like. I know “tone” is very subjective, but I think what I’m saying is that I did not like the author’s voice. I imagine that if I met her, I would not care for her. That’s just my take on it…incredibly subjective, but then that’s what we are, no? Subjective judges of the works we read. As they say, writers and non-writers alike cannot please all of the people…

  14. Oh and I felt like there must be something very wrong with me that I didn’t like The Executioner’s Song, especially when it is two of my sisters’ favorite book of all time, but again, I couldn’t stand the personalities of the main characters. Spending time with them was so objectionable that I had to stop reading it after the murders were committed.

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