This book was on one of those “Best Books to Read This Year” lists, so of course I added it to my TBR pile. In the summary and reviews, it is described as “magnificent”, “brilliantly written”, and “a breathtaking page-turner”. So when I saw it was available on NetGalley, I was thrilled. Then, I started to read it.
The premise of the book is that a mysterious tragedy happened twenty years ago to a group of friends. The result of this is that they are forever linked, but have gone their separate ways in life. While there is some vivid detail in the novel, the characters never came alive for me. I loved the descriptions of the quadrangle in Beijing where the friends grew up. The families coming together after meals, sharing gossip and stories, created a beautiful picture for me. But the setting was more alive for me than the characters.
In the beginning, the description of the two friends, Boyang and Moran, was fun and almost joyous. They moved through their world in an easy, carefree manner. When Ruyu joins their neighborhood, the balance is thrown, and everything changed. Of course, this was exactly the author’s intention. But for me, something went too far; I stopped caring about all of the characters. As the story progressed, I felt like everyone became more and more unlikable – even the people I am pretty sure I was supposed to pity. I was starting to understand why they were alone. Ironically, the summary of the book says that Boyang struggles to deal with an inability to love, when I struggled with that same feeling reading the book.
There is a certain distance I felt from feeling more of this story. I think the characters were too detached from the action. It may be that the back and forth in chronology tells you too much about what is going to happen in the future, so there is no real suspense in the mystery. There is also a political angle framing the story for one of the main characters, but I don’t think it was ever truly developed. So, despite the alleged “mystery”, there are no real surprises. There are many times when the characters thoughts wander into all kinds of platitudes. I wanted to skip over all this and just get to the action. Honestly, maybe I’m shallow, but I don’t have the kind of constant inner dialogue that all of these characters possessed.
The plot lumbered toward its inevitable conclusion, and “breathtaking page-turner” started to feel like a Seinfeld reference. I felt almost as if this book was done in a writing class – where it is probably perfect structurally, but there is just no heart in it.