Too many books?

Have you ever read a book you thought was perfect?  Have you ever found a novel that, as you finished the final page with an inward sigh of satisfaction, made you feel all your hopes for the story and the characters had been utterly fulfilled?  And have you ever read a sequel that’s completely ruined it?

I have – and the small number of times it’s happened stick very vividly in my mind.  I’m not talking here about the law of diminishing returns that so often applies to a long series of books (or films and TV shows come to that); when I start reading any kind of series I do so half expecting that at some point I will either tire of it or the standard of the books may slip somewhat.  I’m thinking now of the books that didn’t need to be written, that took a perfectly satisfying story far beyond its breaking point and forever coloured your reading of the original novel.

A book of this kind that haunts me to this day (and still makes me twitch ever so slightly with anger) is “The Glass of Time” by Michael Cox, sequel to what I seriously consider to be one of the greatest books I’ve read in my entire life, “The Meaning of Night”.   The original novel is a thrilling, atmospheric and exceptionally clever revenge story, a bit like a Victorian era “The Count of Monte Cristo”.  There have been few times when I’ve felt such seething anger on a character’s behalf and such loathing for the villains of the piece who, for the majority of the book, look to be getting away with their devious schemes.  What made the story pretty much perfect though were two things: firstly, the author’s skill in keeping us rooting for the wronged protagonist even when his thoughts of retribution run to murder, and secondly the ending, which I won’t spoil but which packages everything up as neatly as a reader could ever hope for.  And it’s the fact that the “The Meaning of Night” delivered such a flawlessly constructed story that made me so disappointed by the sequel.  To start with, after the fist-pumping excellence of the novel’s conclusion I was a bit bemused as to why there would be a sequel at all, but what upset me most about “The Glass of Time” was that it pushed to revenge element of the story so far that it tipped past the point of keeping the reader on the side of the victim.  Now, the man I’d been cheering for in the first book became so morally reprehensible that I just didn’t care about his thirst for supposed justice any more.  I haven’t revisited “The Meaning of Night” since, but should I do so, I’m now in the slightly awkward position of having to somehow pretend the events that followed didn’t happen.  Whether I’ll be able to do so successfully remains to be seen.

“Go Set a Watchman” was a similar kind of experience, although of course it differs in the (very important) sense that it wasn’t actually a follow on to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, but rather was a first, unsuccessful attempt at the now-famous story.  Even knowing this, however, it was still a shock to spend time in the company of characters with whom I thought I was familiar only to find them altered, in some cases quite dramatically.  Has it affected my reading of “To Kill a Mockingbird”?  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake the feeling now that the beloved characters of this great book are not actually how they first appeared in Harper Lee’s imagination when she started writing.  Reading “Go Set a Watchman” is akin to witnessing the deliberation and decision-making that goes into writing a novel, and it turns out there’s a very good reason why we don’t normally get to see this stage of a writer at work – because it takes the magic of the finished article away.  It proved an interesting talking point on publication to be sure, but all in all I think I’d be happier if I hadn’t read it.

Are there any books that have frustrated or disappointed you in this way?  I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts!

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To be continued…

Next week sees the release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”, which revisits some of the characters from “To Kill a Mockingbird” in their adulthood and explores how the ideologies to which they were exposed in their youth have affected them later in life.  When I first heard about this book I was intrigued, not because I’d always wondered what happened to Jem and Scout after the events of the original story had concluded, but because I hadn’t.  The question that came into my head moments later was, which books have left me wondering about how their characters’ futures panned out after the final page?  My instinct was that there would undoubtedly be some, yet the more I considered it the more I realised that for me the vast majority of novels are done and dusted with that last full stop; I may well mull over what I’ve read and how it affected me, but I don’t really think beyond the scenario the author has chosen to give me.  Does that mean I’m severely lacking in imagination, I wondered?  Or is it simply that most novels don’t invite us to question the finality of their conclusion?  Take “Pride and Prejudice” – clearly Elizabeth and Darcy are going to have many more challenges and emotional upheavals together after they become man and wife, but are we really meant to care about those?  The point of the novel is how a love that at first seems unlikely eventually blossoms between them, and once that story has reached its natural end I almost don’t want to know any more.  I can’t imagine Jane Austen wanting us to know any more either; ultimately it’s the author’s choice when to bring the curtain down on their creations.

There are times when a sequel genuinely expands your view of the characters in a previous novel.  When I finished Rose Tremain’s “Restoration” I may not have given any thought to what could have happened next, but when I read the follow-up, “Merivel”, I really felt it gave me an insight into elements of the protagonist that I hadn’t seen before.  On the other hand, every idea eventually reaches the point where to stretch it further would diminish its impact.  “The Meaning of Night” by Michael Cox is one of my all-time favourite novels and as such the prospect of a sequel seemed too good to be true.  Yet it turned out to be an enormous disappointment – not because of the quality of the writing but because it pushed its main characters and their behaviour beyond the limits of both sympathy and credibility.  The ending to the first book was the perfect conclusion to that particular story and I couldn’t help feeling it had been somehow undermined by what the author chose to do next.

I will probably read “Go Set a Watchman” – now that the possibility of finding out about Scout’s adult life has been dangled in front of me I pretty much have to!  I’d love to know if there are any books you wish had been continued; I’m sure there are many of you out there who are far more curious than me…