Friday, September 9, 2016

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais (2008)

Every few months - and if I'm really lucky, a spell of weeks - books come along that astound, enchant, amaze. The books you read in one, incredible sitting.  The books you read you devour quickly because you can't wait to see what happens at the end.  The books of Hilary Mantel. The books of Jo Walton.   A Tale for the Time Being.  Station Eleven.   I can keep listing these books, back 35 years or so, to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or The Headless Cupid.  The great ones.

And then there are the almost greats.  The Persian Pickle Club or Tall Grass by Sandra Dallas come to mind.  Incredible stories, but not necessarily life changing.  The murder mysteries of Rhys Bowen.  The Bone Clocks.  Not books stored in the literary corner of my heart, but books I can look at, and sigh, and think "that was a good book."

And then there are books like The Hundred-Foot Journey.

 I listened to The Hundred Foot Journey on streaming audio.  Perhaps the experience is different reading it.  I imagine that actually sitting down to read it, you are allowed the pleasure of skimming and skipping to parts you like.  That's more difficult to do when you are listening to a book, in the car, on the way to work or back home again after a long day.  Or washing dishes or folding laundry.
Usually, there is something comforting about this.  Among my fondest memories are those of my Grandma Thrasher, reading aloud The Poky Little Puppy.  Or Miss Shull, my fourth grade teacher, reading Escape from Warsaw or that book about basenji dogs, or Searching For Shona.  The narrator of The Hundred Foot Journey, Neil Shah, was strong and good.  There were no problems with his interpretations of characters or his narrative style.

Listening to The Hundred-Foot Journey was not comforting.  It was not comforting because I started to hate this book.  Hate it.

Let me admit that I didn't finish listening to it.  I was unable to throw it down in disdain, because it's a streaming audio book.  Virtually, Tron-like, I did so though.

Because I hated this book.

I hated it for so many reasons.

I hated the plot.  Actually, I hated it because it had no plot.  It was like reading a cookbook.  There were description of delicious sounding food.  Foodie food porn kinds of food.  Five kinds of oysters.  Braised hare Indian foods of all sorts and spices.  Food food food food food.

I'm not being totally serious; there was a plot.  Of sorts.  But it was the saddest-ass excuse for a plot imaginable.  Really, it was a plot that's existence was solely for the author to describe food.  Again.  And again.  And again.

You'd think a novel would require some sort of conflict.  If the plot was the saddest-ass excuse for a plot ever, the conflict in that plot was even more sad-ass.  Every time conflict started, something almost deus ex machina-like would turn the story a different direction, and erase that conflict.  Mom dies in a horrible accident; family forced to move to England. Hint of conflict - then WHOOSH, the gods descend and the family takes an extended vacation to Europe.  Hint of conflict - the gods descend, and the family buys a restaurant in France, across the street from a racist mean old lady restaurant that hates them.  Hint of conflict, the lady decides she loves them, takes son under her wing - who the fuck knows why.  Hint of conflict, gods descend, son moves to Paris... and then I really stopped listening and caring.

One of the great ones has interesting and complicated characters.  The almost greats have interesting and complicated characters as well.  The Hundred-Foot Journey, though, has a cast of hundreds, and can't quite ever make any of them complicated or interesting.  Have you ever seen the movie version of The Color Purple? It's not a good movie.  It's got some great actors, and they get to say and do some great things.  But something I always wonder when I watch this movie is that the background is full of characters, who are there for no reasons we can fathom.  They just exist to populate the background, to add spice, but I think end up detracting from the film because you are always wondering who the hell all those kids belong to, or who are all those old ladies nodding in church, or who the hell are all those people eating at the Easter dinner when Miss Celie takes after Albert with the knife.  It's JUST LIKE THAT in Hundred Foot Journey.  I think the Indian family has child after child after child who appear WHEN CONVENIENT TO THE PLOT, yet add nothing to the story.  The same is true for the French villagers.  They only exist as paper dolls, as a setting but DON'T REALLY MATTER TO THE STORY.

I hate this book.  So much.

And the number one reason I hate this book.  More than it's lack of plot, or shitty prose, or cookbookish writing, or fake memoir, or sappy sentiment (because oh my god, it's got so much sappy sentiment, again for no good reason).  I most of all hate this book because it's one long, tedious film treatment.  I don't know who this author is, but I do know this book became a movie starring Helen Mirren.  I've heard it was a good movie too.  I don't know if I want to find out now. At some point, I started to wonder if this was a movie novelization. That the movie was made and then this guy wrote a book based on the movie.  But I don't think it was.  What I do think is that the author had the idea for a movie, or at the very least a miniseries on BBC, and "wrote" a "book" to get that movie made.

Good for him.

The Hundred-Foot JourneyThe Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It's too bad we can't give negative reviews. What's the opposite of a star?

Here is what I think happened. An author - quite possibly a respectable one, a good one -- "wrote" a "book" because he had an idea for a great movie. And shazam, a "beloved bestseller" was hatched, like an alien, from his brain to the page, and then quickly to the big screen. Where I suspect it made many people at least some money.

At some point, I thought I had stumbled into a movie novelization, but no. The film treatment - I mean book - I mean "book" was written first.

This book has something you can barely describe as a plot, with a cast of hundreds of mostly dull characters who mostly exist as some sort of backdrop, an annoying lack of conflict and a deus ex machina quality that might have worked well in 18th century opera but left me cold as vichyssoise. Left out overnight. In the street. In January.

I must be an idiot though. The "book" was a bestseller, it's beloved. Who am I to question a blurb?

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