Some time ago I was challenged to read outside of my comfort zone, to explore other genres and non-Western authors. One recommendation was The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

I checked it out on the library app Libby. (By the way, I highly recommend this app. It’s such a convenient way to access the library without having to leave the comfort of home–no small thing in the winter we’re enduring in the upper Midwest.) I struggled through about half of it on the e-reader before it was automatically returned, not to my disappointment. Yet, I’ve mentioned before that it’s not in my nature to simply give up on a book.

I read some Goodreads reviews and discovered that I was not the only one who failed to see why this book came so highly recommended. I could have let it go and not felt bad about it, but I decided to give it one more try. I checked out the hardcover book. This could also be an experiment. Would the format make a difference? Could I appreciate the story more with an actual book in hand?

For devotees of Arundhati Roy’s writing, I’m sorry to say the answer is still no, though perhaps not quite as emphatic. And who knows, perhaps if I read it again, I might like it a little more. I would not likely stumble over the vocabulary as much as I did on the first reading. For that is my primary complaint—and sadly—it’s likely more a reflection of my sheltered life than Roy’s writing. Too many terms were unfamiliar to me. I struggled to keep the names of characters straight because they were not recognizable or common to my ear.

For a debut novel, Roy’s work is impressive. Set in India, the cast of characters includes Estha and Rahel, twins who did not come from the same egg but share a unique ability to understand each other on a deep level—to know what the other thinks and experiences. Their beautiful mother married badly and left their abusive father when he turned his outbursts on the children. Now they live in a once-beautiful home with their grandmother, an aunt and her servant, and their communist uncle who runs—or more accurately—allows the family business started by the grandmother, Paradise Pickles and Preserves, to run down.

The narrator hints at a tragic death from the beginning but takes us on a lengthy time travel before the reader finally discovers what happened to Sophie Mol, the much-beloved daughter of the divorced Uncle Chacko and his English wife. At times the narrator relates incidents from the point of view of the seven-year-old twins—almost in a stream of consciousness style as though we’re in their heads. In the next scene, it’s twenty-three years later and Rahel has returned to her childhood home now in a state of disrepair. The narrative continues to flash back between Rahel’s present and childhood memories–shifts I found difficult to follow.

The dilapidated Ayemenem House serves as a metaphor not only for one Indian family but for the country itself. Roy’s work is more than the story of one family’s rise and tragic fall. It is also a commentary on India’s history, culture, and politics. With rich imagery, Roy delivers a multifaceted tale that is best read slowly and reread to fully absorb its weight and impact. That requires more patience than I’m usually willing to give a book.

Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, however, was a page turner for me. My introduction to Hannah was The Nightingale, one of the few books I gave a 5-star review on Goodreads.

In her latest book, Hannah follows Ernt Allbright, a Vietnam POW, his wife Cora and their teen daughter Leni to Alaska. The opportunity to make a fresh start in the wilderness appeals to Ernt who suffers from paranoia related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The family is unprepared in every way–physically and fiscally and especially emotionally–to endure the harsh realities of Alaska. The long, dark days of winter close in on them. The family survives physically only because the small community surrounding their new home takes them under their wings and teaches them how to grow and preserve their own food, hunt, and fish. But even they cannot heal the family’s emotional pain. In a few years, Ernt’s mental state deteriorates into full-on physical abuse, which Cora rationalizes away until he turns his rage on their daughter. Only then, does Cora find the strength to confront her tormentor and rescue Leni and herself.

I enjoy Hannah’s writing but found this novel to be less satisfying than The Nightingale. The characters were more shallow, the plot more predictable. As I wrote in my Goodreads review for The Nightingale, when you find yourself thinking about the characters days after you’ve finished the novel, it’s deserving of the [5-star] rating.

What book have you read recently that had that kind of impact on you?

Do you have any recommendations for out-of-my-comfort-zone reading?

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