Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell

Are you ready? All together now, let's breathe a sigh of relief. I have finally finished reading The Sparrow.

The gist of the story can be summed up relatively briefly. In the near future, we are made aware of sentient alien life, and a small representative group of humans travels to the nearby solar system to make contact and gather data.

The author of The Sparrow is "a paleoanthropologist known for work on cannibalism and craniofacial biomechanics." To me, that is at once fascinating and daunting. On one hand, that sounds like a very interesting specialty; on the other hand, if I'd known about Russell's background before reading the book, I might have feared she would weigh her writing down with dry and dull scientific facts.

But have no fear--this is not so. In fact, this book is very much about interpersonal relationships and very little about sci-fi. The actual "outer space" aspect receives hardly any treatment, and most of the book focuses on discovering the evidence of alien life, preparing for the journey, arriving at the destination, and the aftermath. Because oh yes, there is an aftermath.

I first heard about this book here. I just had to know what happened to Emilio's hands. I was also pretty curious as to what Raych meant by saying this book "eviscerated me in the face." Was this a fancy way of saying it made her cry? Or was she just trying to convey both that it eviscerated her, and that it's "in your face"? I still don't know the answer to that question, although perhaps if I were not heartless and cold I might have cried when George found out that Anne died.

The writing was nicely done and did not cause me to roll my eyes except this once, when Jimmy asked Sofia, "'How long do you suppose I can go on loving you more every day?' And he devised for her a calculus of love, which approached infinity as a limit, and made her smile again." Gag! The only thing that could have made that bit worse is if Jimmy had derived for her a calculus of love. But thankfully the rest of the book is quite well-written.

About 20 or 30 pages from the end I started to get that itch described when the main character is reading the titular book in The Thirteenth Tale. I wish I could insert the exact quote, because I'm sure Setterfield phrased it with more elegance than I ever could, but you'll have to make do with my vague memory. As she neared the end of a book that was supposed to have contained thirteen stories, the narrator could tell there wasn't a sufficient number of pages remaining in it for a satisfactory thirteenth tale, and this made her anxious. Just as that narrator, I didn't think the book could be resolved to my approval in 20 or 30 pages, but Russell managed to pull it off, binding all of the loose threads in a convincing manner, though not so neatly that I was annoyed.

It seems that all I have left to say consists of a ragtag group of disjointed thoughts, but I think I have come up with a way to neatly categorize them for you.

The good: I would be content to be perceived in the way that Russell, at one point, describes Emilio Sandoz. "He was a man of impressive intelligence who seemed to her clear-souled and fulfilled." Well, except for the part about being a man, of course.

The bad: I don't know why it took me so long to become interested in this book. It's really not dull or slow or poorly written or disconcertingly bizarre, but still I never felt compelled to pick it up until I'd already read half of it. Do you suppose that forgetting to bring it on my vacation was some sort of Freudian slip? Also, I was disappointed that Russell explained what happened to Emilio's hands fairly early in the book, although the redemption was that she did not explain why until much later.

The funny: Those who are verbose should belong to "On and On Anon." OR, when you are in zero G (and therefore are without gravity), what you have instead is . . . levity. Most of the main characters were very witty and well-spoken, and if they were so clever that it seemed a little contrived, I was able to successfully ignore that fact. Though, now that I think about it, I'm not sure the calculus comment was the only one to cause eye-rolling.

I came across an excellent quote in this book, which I might have to memorize: "Genius may have its limits but stupidity is not thus handicapped." It is followed closely by what the author claims could be the theme of the book: "Even if you do the best you can, you still get screwed." That one is too depressing to apply to real life, but in the context of the book it totally cracks me up. And if you've read it and you know what I'm talking about, you probably think I'm a little sick.

I read the author interview at the end of this book and discovered it has a sequel called Children of God. Please tell me if you have read this, and if so, what you thought of it. Honestly, though The Sparrow was a good read, I don't feel an overwhelming urge to pick up the sequel; but if you tell me it was excellent, I will believe you and give it a shot. I'm a sucker for lines like that.


Kay said...

I read this book many years ago. It was like nothing I had ever read before. I was very intrigued. However, I have never had the urge to pick up the sequel. Not really sure why. I have had other friends who have read CHILDREN OF GOD and been satisfied, others have not liked it. I remember THE SPARROW as being a very compelling read that I would recommend, but I have no desire to reread it.

Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

I read the sequel but the one I remember most is Sparrow. It seems like the sequel has Emilio returning to Earth about the same age as when he left but people he knew before are older-- seems like he had a child-- or someone had a child and the child is now an adult...

DeLynne said...

BTW, I think Lesa has read everything....

This review makes me want to get a copy and see what I think. I am always confounded by those books that are slow to hook me despite seeming to be perfect otherwise.

Kathy said...

@Kay--it's so funny that we feel the same way about both books (intrigued by The Sparrow, but probably wouldn't read it again; not interested in the sequel). I wonder why that is?

@Lesa--your comment almost makes me wonder if I shouldn't just find a thorough synopsis of the sequel to read online. You know, kind of like the Cliff's Notes of the Cliff's Notes that you can sometimes hunt up.

@Delynne--Hah, I think you are right about Lesa. ;) Be sure and let me know if you do read The Sparrow!