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Bookmark: If the reader disagrees with the critic, who is right?

October 5, 2018

Authors might complain that negative book reviews can lacerate their self-esteem, but readers themselves can also feel sliced and diced.

Unfortunately, these often are self-inflicted wounds.

Heres how it happens: If Ive read a book and find that a reviewer agrees with my opinion, then theyve written a well-reasoned critique. But if someone finds fault with a book that I enjoyed, my first instinct never is to consider the reviewer addled, but to fret that my standards have slipped.

Oof, how could I have missed the predictable dialogue? How could I have enjoyed the slapdash character development?

This happened again with a recent review of The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah in the New York Times Book Review.

Although Hannah has written more than a dozen novels, she was new to me when friends recommended The Nightingale, her novel about a young woman in the French Resistance of World War II.

I was wary, knowing that Hannah was linked with chick lit which, as we all know, is code for for well, for an engaging story, often with romance, often described as a good read, as opposed to a nobly joyless trudge through an important book.

Granted, a generalization. Still, a chick lit novel isnt likely to become a classic, nor win prestigious awards. It may, however, live atop bestseller lists for weeks.

I enjoyed The Nightingale very much. When Hannah spoke last year at the authors series sponsored by Excelsior Bay Books, I found her charming and was impressed by her research.

So when her latest novel, The Great Alone, came out, I was game.

I cant say I enjoyed the book, because its not an enjoyable novel, but a harrowing tale of domestic violence, racism and paranoia. And its a page-turner. Set in Alaska at the end of the Vietnam War, its the story of a troubled vet who moves with his wife and teenage daughter, Leni, to the Kenai Peninsula, convinced that hard work and glorious surroundings will heal his psychic wounds.

They dont. But the path to that conclusion has some unexpected twists and compelling characters. I reviewed the book for this newspaper, judging it a good read, and have enthusiastically recommended it to friends.

So I was curious to read how much the New York Times reviewer, one Ann Leary, liked the book. Less, much less.

Folks dont just have descriptive nicknames in Hannahs Alaska, Leary wrote. They have a tendency to use bumper-sticker-like slogans in everyday conversation.

Or this: Weve witnessed Lenis growing discernment; we dont need the book-club-ready clarifications that accompany too many scenes.

Leary does mention Hannahs admirable storytelling skills, but the nod sounds more like shes scruffling a dogs neck and murmuring, Good girl.

Reviews are just opinions, of course, and Leary is entitled to hers as much as I am to mine.

So why the persistent, self-doubting voice? Maybe maybe the reason lies simply in what gets read first: a book or a review.

After all, who hasnt experienced finding a touted book a bit of a slog and wondering what the reviewer could have been thinking to recommend such dreck?

In short, views differ. And thank goodness. In a world of echo chambers, its often illuminating to consider other points of view.

For what theyre worth.

Kim Ode was a features writer for the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @Odewrites. Laurie Hertzel is on vacation.

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