What makes a book a keeper?

I’ve been on a re-reading kick recently

My latest re-reads have been books by Mary Doria Russell. I just wrote up my impressions of “The Sparrow” and “Children of God” on my Patreon page and to summarize – those books were incandescent. They were astonishing explorations of anthropology, history, xenobiology, environmental studies, theology, and the human condition – and it was all done in a seamless way, uncannily beautiful, viciously fair, technically accomplished.
Rarely has a protagonist stayed with me – in mind-memory and in heart-empathy – more than Emilio Sandoz. I lived his tragedy. I felt his pain. I understood (inasmuch as that was possible to understand without having experienced anything so shattering) his suffering. And not less so on the re-read than I had done when I first encountered him.
And then I put away the Sandoz books, and I picked up another re-read – Russell’s “A Thread of Grace”. I know I read this book before – but the first hint that things would not be the same as the Sandoz duology had to lie in two things which were on the face of it unrelated but which, together, make up a potent explanation for what I ultimately ended up feeling about the book.
The first was that almost perfect prologue, describing a person who was born into a damaged situation, and grew up damaged and bitter and afraid – describing the things that frightened him – describing the things he did to deal with that fear – ending with the unforgettable paragraph where his solution was detailed, to focus his fear and his hatred on something simple and external – and one more thing, oh, yes, – “The doctor who failed to cure Klara Hitler’s xancer was Jewish.” The deep knell-like sound of that resounds, like someone rang a big brass bell. We who live on the other side of that history know where that sentence led. And it is terrifying in its simplicity.
The second thing is that I looked at the list of Dramatis Personae in the beginning of the book and I did not recognize or remember a single name that I saw there. Twenty years after I read “The Sparrow” I still knew exactly who Emilio Sandoz was. Considerably less time than that had passed since “Thread of Grace” and yet its protagonists were completely erased from my memory.
The Sandoz books had heart and soul and passion. “Thread of Grace” tries for it, but somehow… it’s like watching this whole thing through a glass wall, or on a movie screen, it doesn’t engage, it doesn’t ever truly come alive.
And the worst part is that it isn’t the fault of the book, not as such. Russell, as always, is technically brilliant. She is an amazing writer. She picked a dramatic and potentially shattering context, situation, milieu for her story. Her characters are far from bad, or badly written. And yet and yet and yet and yet.
I just came out of the other end of the re-read of this, and honestly, I found myself checking how many pages were left in the novel before the end. Not because, like in some novels that you love, you can’t bear the thought of it ending, and you look at the thin wedge of pages that are left in this story you love, and you despair because once you’ve gone through those last few pages that story that you love will be over and there is no more of it to be had and you are already in mourning about that. No, this was more, “how many pages are there left? Should I just plough on and finish it? is it worth stopping here only to have to come back and start wading through it again tomorrow?”
This is a dramatic story of refugees, of courage, of resistance, of random Teutonic cruelty made worse by back-against-the-wall syndrome – people in this book are real, nobody is guaranteed happiness or even survival, people live or die at random just like they would have done in real life – I cannot point to a single thing that Russell did wrong, and yet it’s not right. I simply do not connect to a single character in this book like I connected to Emilio Sandoz from “The Sparrow”.
“Thread of Grace” is flawless, beautifully written, well plotted, peopled with character who have every right to be loved and remembered… and yet it’s cold. The most apocalyptic result of this particular re-read is me being left to wonder whether it’s worth keeping this book in my library. I don’t think I will ever re-read it again, and God knows that I could use the shelf space for all the double and triple shelved books jostling for space all around it.
What makes a book a keeper? Is it that things or people from it grab hold of a piece of your memory and make it their own? If things or people in a book do not do this, at what point does a line in the sand get drawn? Is it only the writer in me that is still caught up on the beauty of the writing, of the language? Of the technical ability? What is it that has been done here to what can arguably be called a truly dramatic story that makes it so… forgettable?
I’m not saying not to read it or calling it a waste of time. If you haven’t read it, and you enjoy a good writer telling a story full of intrigue and blood and guts and raw courage in the midst of a war started by a frightened nerd who sought a place to pin his fears and settled on the Jews of the world and then had some of the most exquisite monsters of our race do his dirty work for him – this might be edifying, cathartic, even. For all I know, I am utterly wrong and you will find a character here to love without reservation. Read it. Judge for yourself.
All I can tell you is that I was holding the book in my hand one morning and I, the ultimate book-keeper, found myself wondering whether I wanted to hold onto this particular book. That’s between me and it. Do make your own decisions, see if bits of your memory find things to lock onto here. But as far as I am concerned… it is beautiful, it is potentially heart-wrenching, and it is sterile.

(My reviews of “The Sparrow” and “Children of God” are available
on my Patreon page now, along with another section of the serialized
first draft of my newest novel. You can join my Patreon family for
as little as $1 a month...)