The (latest) book I just couldn’t finish…

By Caitlin Kelly




The fines alone for keeping this book out of library too long — I could have bought it.

And, too ironic, the title: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

It’s not even a very long book. I tried!

I just didn’t care about any of the characters. I didn’t find the plot, such as it was, compelling. Nor was the writing especially beautiful.

And it won the 2011 Booker Prize. Oh, well.

I just saw a friend’s post saying she couldn’t finish Donna Tartt’s latest, The Goldfinch.

I’ve tried several times to penetrate Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett and gave up.

Yet I am still slowly reading, and enjoying, Atonement by Ian McEwan, one of my favorite writers and recently (somewhat) enjoyed The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.

I put off for years reading The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, but couldn’t put it down and loved it.

What book(s) have you simply given up on halfway through — and why?

62 thoughts on “The (latest) book I just couldn’t finish…

  1. I suspect that you and I have similar reading tastes. Bel Canto was a marathon of restarts until I gave up and the Barnes book went back to the library also unfinished. My most shameful literary interruptus was Atwood’s Onyx and Crake. I must have renewed that book to the limit and still never finished. I’m much happier with Wally Lamb’s We are Water and can predict a quick finish!

    1. That wouldn’t surprise me! 🙂

      I could never understand why Bel Canto was supposed to be so great. If you haven’t hooked me within a few pages. it probably isn’t going to happen. The library actually called yesterday…Yikes.

      Have you read Cat’s Eye by Atwood? It made me homesick for Toronto, as did In The Skin of a Lion. I LOVE Michael Ondaatje’s work.

  2. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. I picked it up at a used book store and have always been curious because of all of the controversy around it. The writing is lovely, but I will use your exact words and say “I just didn’t care about any of the characters”.

    The timing of your post is perfect, by the way. I was thinking this afternoon of starting a summer reading list.

    1. Thanks for this…I have never read his work and feel amiss for not having done so. Good for you to make a list. I am never that organized.

      I’d highly recommend Canada (Richard Ford’s latest) and The Imperfectionists, one of my faves of recent years. I also loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Paris based) but some people dislike it.

  3. i had tried to read anna karenina before, but gave up once. for some reason, i decided to give it a second chance and loved it. i did also love bel canto by the way, but have decided not to make myself complete books i just can’t get into for whatever reason. life is too short and there are way too many good books out there to waste my reading time on those that just don’t interest me. no matter how good the reviews or where the recommendations came from.

    1. Now I must read AK….I saw the most recent film version with Keira Knightley….I was distracted all the way through by how wrong the jewelry was. 🙂

      I agree. My shelves are full of unread stuff; I keep buying serious history, etc and then thinking “sigh, I should…”

      1. oh, i hope you do, the characters are so interesting. as for the film, i agree, while it was pretty, it was distracting to say the least, like seeing a series of stage sets or pieces of art.

  4. The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger). It was all the rage at one point, but I couldn’t make myself care about anything at all – plot, characters etc.

    I actually enjoyed The Sense of An Ending. I found it a meditative read, and enjoyed what it did to me outside of actual reading.

  5. Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell, I have tried to read it for three times, but i just couldn’t make it, either the language or the story. I even haven’t make it to the half book thick and just put it down, but I think I will make another try because I already started it.

  6. I always feel so awful when I give up…but I do sometimes too. My latest was the new Jhumpa Lahiri, the Lowlands. I was so excited to read this and even pre-ordered it, as I have read all her others (The Namesake, Interpreter of Maladies, etc…), but just couldn’t get into this one at all….. I’m going to try again, sometimes it’s timing?? Oh, there’s another…NW by Zadie Smith. Again, so excited to read and have read all her others but this one didn’t hook me at all to the point where I don’t think I’ll try again. I am very loyal, author-wise and like to read all the new ones by my favorites so get disappointed when I have to give up.

    1. I hear you! I LOVED White Teeth and loathed the one about the rich American kids. Was that On Beauty?

      I loved The Namesake and the film version was made in a town nearby; I got to visit the house they filmed in when I wrote about it.

      I loved Claire Messud’s first book but was disappointed by her latest, The Woman Upstairs. It was very well written but it had some weird self-consciousness for me all the way through.

  7. Count me as another who could not get through Bel Canto, though I love Ann Patchett’s work — Truth and Beauty just killed me, I loved The Magician’s Assistant and enjoyed State of Wonder.

    The book that I should have liked but couldn’t get into — Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Another instance where I loved her other book — Men We Reaped.

    Never read War & Peace. Never read Moby Dick. No guilt.

    1. Interesting….Thanks for the rec’s!

      I’ve heard Ward interviewed on NPR; Men We Reaped does sound like an amazing book.

      I have yet to try W and P but I do have Moby Dick on my bookshelf…unread. 🙂

  8. Ooh, I love Atonement. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Have you seen the film adaptation?

    Ian McEwan’s writing is so wonderfully evocative and powerful and I have a number of favourite quotes from Atonement, especially this one:

    “Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen. She repeated them, with exactly the same slight emphasis on the second word, as though she were the one to say them first. He had no religious belief, but it was impossible not to think of an invisible presence or witness in the room, and that these words spoken aloud were like signatures on an unseen contract.”

    It’s so beautifully written!

    1. He does write so well…I did see the film and loved it. Am just finishing the final few chapters. But he can be GRIM. Did you read the one about Venice and ominous strangers there? I was IN Venice, alone, reading it. Brrrrr.

      If you have never read Michael Ondaatje (Canadian!) (who wrote The English Patient), I’d urge you to try him. I find reading him is like slipping into a dream state. I still remember scenes from In the Skin of a Lion (set in Toronto in the 1920s) even though I read it many years ago.

      1. Oh yes, I’ve heard about his dark novels. Well, I suppose Atonement isn’t exactly full of sweetness and light but it’s less dark than some of his writing. I haven’t read The Comfort of Strangers, the one you mention. Would you recommend it, even though it sounds creepy?

        I’ve never read any of Michael Ondaatje’s books. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll add him to my TBR list.

  9. Recently I tried to read The Borrower by rebecca makkai. That novel got good reviews all around, but I just couldn’t get past page 50. Something about the subject matter rubbed me the wrong way.
    Sometimes I can’t connect with a story and I’ll come back to it years later to find that I’ve changed enough to engage with the story and end up enjoying it. That happened with The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. Glad I found my way back to it. (Not sure I’ll be doing the same with The Borrower thought!)

    1. Interesting. I find it really fascinating what immediately resonates for us as readers (esp. when we write for a living!) and what turns us off very quickly. It’s so personal.

      I loved the film of The Shipping News but am not sure I ever read the book.

      And I like revisiting books you thought you’d not like. Master and Margarita was such a revelation for me. I couldn’t stop reading — after having it on my shelf for many years.

  10. mhasegawa

    I could never get into Sue Monk Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees which is a little strange because I generally like Southern Lit.

      1. mhasegawa

        Possible or maybe a lot of people were like me: read the buzz and bought the book, but couldn’t get through it.

  11. I too couldn’t get into Bel Canto when my book club read it, and left it on the shelf for years. I picked it up a couple summers ago with the promise to myself that if I didn’t like it within the first 50 pages this time, I’d give it up for good. But I did like it, and the end blew me away. It was the same with Cold Mountain, an all time favorite. I had to get through the first 50 pages of descriptions of the rural setting before the author settled into the story to start appreciating it. I loved Atonement from the get go, though, and it remains on my list of all time favorites; I refuse to see the movie though, I didn’t want Keira Knightley imprinted in my imagination playing that character. I was excited to find Hilary Mantle’s Bring Up the Bodies at a library book sale for $1 and bought Wolf Hall to read first — but ugh, the start is awful, and I haven’t been able to get myself past pg. 12. I think for me, it’s not the book, but my frame of mind that makes the difference. I have to be in the right mood for something and then I have no problem tucking in.

  12. Thoreau’s Walden, for one. I just can not get through it. It’s been a long time, now, but I think it was partly because he is so snobbish about what he is doing and how much better he is than everyone else. I did read The Maine Woods, though, and loved that book.

      1. Woolf has the penchant of flirting with literary decorum, like changing a character from female to male (title?). Or completely obliterating Shakespeare’s family history to suit her needs. Call me a conservative, but I do like some semblance of structure, which is why I couldn’t read The Road either.

  13. I embarked upon War and Peace with such good intentions, but I just couldn’t figure out how all these people connected to each other and I found the descriptions just didn’t let me understand or care about them. But it’s supposed to be so great, so this embarrasses me. I loved Anna Karenina, although it is a big time commitment.

  14. 100 years of sollitude.
    I just couldn’t. I must admit I was studying Latin American Studies at the time and had a Gabriel Garcia Marquez (and others in his genre) overdose by the time I decided to read it, and I still believe I will read it one day but there is just so much detail, that you can’t read it casually between activities or before dosing off to sleep… But maybe… one day… one holiday…

    1. It’s so interesting to see what books resonate (or not) and why. It’s true that sometimes we’re in the mood for a whole new world to enter…and sometimes we’re not!

      Thanks for commenting.

  15. I tried watching the TV version of “Game of Thrones” but I did not like it. I’ve heard other people say they couldn’t finish Goldfinch. I haven’t tried it yet. I actually loved Bel Canto and enjoyed Atonement, but I tried reading a more recent book by McEwan, Sweet Tooth, and I couldn’t get into it. It’s good to be honest about what you read and to move on if you have to!

    1. I took the GOT book out of the library but didn’t even have time to open it; I might try again when we’re on vacation soon, and we also have several 6-10 hr drives to get through. I also find it frustrating when you really love one author’s book — but hate the next! It’s unreasonable of us to expect consistency (beyond excellence) from writers, but I think many of us do.

  16. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I loathed that book and was really annoyed because I paid a lot of money for it (in France, English-language books are really expensive.) How it managed to win the Booker Prize is beyond me – the only reason I could think of was the jury was composed of dull, white men (like the author).

    I purchased Tartt’s The Goldfinch 3 months ago (also at considerable expense) and am still slogging through it. It’s way too long and I’ve lost interest in the main character. Every now and then I pick it up and read a few pages. It’s beautifully written but there’s just too much of it. On the other hand, Tartt’s first novel The Secret History was brilliant.

    Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is another book I never finished. She’s an excellent writer but her self-absorption, whining and non-stop babbling turned me off her and her travels altogether.

    I’ll give Ian McEwan a try, haven’t read him.

    Here are some recommendations from my own private stack of books, books that I read and re-read:

    1. Joan Didion. Anything by her, she’s magnificent.
    2. Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (incredible)
    3. A.S. Byatt’s Possession (pure pleasure)
    4. Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (brilliant – really taut, fast-paced writing)
    5. Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad (one of the best memoir-writers I’ve recently read).

    1. Thanks. Sorry those were so $$$$ and disappointing. Bad combination!

      I have never read (true) any Didion. I did not like Karr’s book (a best seller so what do I know?) Have never read As Byatt or numbers 4 and 5. I tend to read very little fiction but keep forcing myself as I am missing a lot.

  17. Gone, Girl. Halfway through, when I realized the characters were all creeps and the plot line got ridiculous, I stopped. House of Sand and Fog. Ugh. Another dismal book with despicable characters. But Bel Canto? I loved:). To each his own, right?

    1. Too funny. I recently finally read Gone Girl for book club and enjoyed it — and, yes, despicable characters. I don’t have to like a character to enjoy a book. I find many readers do….

  18. Jonathan R

    I stopped reading the Rachel Kushner book halfway through. Suddenly it seemed totally predictable and not worth finishing.

      1. Jonathan R

        Yes indeed! I had been very much looking forward to reading it. Perhaps, as NY Review of Books suggested, the inevitable movie will be better.

  19. In the last month: 1-Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs: what made me even think of trying? I was looking for something lighter.This one had no heft to it at all and wasn’t funny, either. 2-Robin Olivieri’s I Always Loved You, which I began with high hopes as it is about Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas in Paris. By page 99 I felt too impatient with all the shennigans of miscellaneous painters and their partners and their nefarious affairs, and gave up. It is in the “somewhat undecided” pile, however, as it seems well-researched. Now halfway through Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr. Lynch’s Holiday and finding it refreshing, unusual setting and plot arc, interesting psychologically.The woman writes a very good tale. For pyschological suspense, try Alice LaPlante’s books.
    Love to read about your book reading and thoughts.

  20. Ana. K

    Hi, this post is right up my alley.
    Atonement is a well structured novel. I had that as a set text for an English subject of mine and was surprised by it. Actually, it was the only novel I liked in that unit.
    The novel that pushed me over the edge this year, for its third person present tense was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I tried, but only got up to 100 pages. The other annoying thing, I bought Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies together.
    The Satanic Verses is another. I bought that when the controversy hit the news so many years ago, as they were removing it from the shelves, so it was a rush buy. I tried to read it 8 times. It’s still sitting on my shelf. I must say it did put me off Rushdie’s work, but I decided to take the challenge and read Midnight’s Children, and loved it (compared to A Passage to India).

    1. Thanks for weighing in….I’ve never tried Hilary Mantel’s work, nor Rushdie. I tend to avoid best-sellers, but Midnight’s Children sounds intriguing. I’ll be teaching writing this fall at college, so need to brush up on my fiction!

  21. bookreviewdaily

    I have to say that I gave up on the Arthurian fantasy novel by T.H. White called “The Once and Future King.” I lasted about 85 pages. It wasn’t the first fantasy book I gave up on either. That’s a genre I haven’t explored much.

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