Marmite Books

sks41aSo, the Summer School is now over and this year it threw up some rather unexpected responses.

The book that almost everyone enjoyed was Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I have to say that personally this took me rather by surprise.  I did enjoy it the first time round, but on re-reading I found a much greater depth than I remembered and I was really glad to have had the chance to come back to it.

The book that we had most difficulty with was Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. Quite a number of us had read the novel when it first came out and we all found that we remembered it far more kindly than on second acquaintance we felt it merited.  Because I love chamber music more than any other form of the art, I suspect that I had been seduced by the discussion of the various pieces that the Quartet are playing and hadn’t given enough attention to some seriously weak plotting and character development.  It came as a nasty shock.

However, the book that split us completely was Barbara Trapido’s The Travelling Hornplayer.  This was a complete marmite book: we either loved it or hated it.  There were no half measures.  Those, like myself, who really enjoyed it, all felt so strongly that to a reader we have gone back to the earlier books featuring the same characters.  Those who hated every word are unlikely to do the same.

It isn’t often in my experience that a book divides its readership quite so drastically, but perhaps you know otherwise?  Is there a book you’ve come across that has elicited a similar response?  It would be useful to know before I draw up next year’s book lists.  While some difference of opinion makes for lively discussion that level of disagreement can mean that there is no middle ground on which it is possible to meet.

22 thoughts on “Marmite Books

  1. Yes, and disturbing, Denise. It makes me wonder how many other books I remember fondly I would react against now. A warning against too much re-reading, perhaps.

  2. I remember liking An Equal Music but can’t remember what I liked or much about it at all. One of the most interesting things about discussing books with others can be the difference in our experiences in the same book. I have never read Barbara Trapido and wouldn’t know what to expect from her.

    1. I’m not certain about recommending Trapido to you, Ali. If she had been writing about the same sort of situations forty years earlier then I think you would have liked her, but she is firmly set in the modern world.

  3. I’m so glad you enjoyed the Trapido, Alex, although I’m amazed that it turned into a Marmite book for your group. I wouldn’t have expected it to elicit such strong antipathy, probably because I loved it so much.

    1. That was my reaction, Susan. I love everything Trapido writes but there were those who didn’t warm to the characters at all as well as finding the structure of this one difficult. And, yet one of the reasons I love it is because the structure allows her to play so well with the concept of the unreliable narrator.

  4. Though I know you won’t be interested in teaching this one, as it has been taught to death, a book I absolutely detest is “Moby Dick.” Other people have told me they love it, they find it inspiring, they feel uplifted by it, etc. I even had a male friend play the gender card and tell me that the reason I didn’t like it was because men do, and women don’t, that it’s a men’s adventure story which women are unlikely to be able to relate to. If that sort of thing were so (i.e., if a book concentrating on men’s thoughts and adventures and misadventures were actually inaccessible to women), then I think I would’ve experienced the same thing with Ian McEwan’s book “Solar,” (another book people seem either to love or hate), and instead I really had a great time with the humor of it. Anyway, I do recommend “Solar” if you haven’t taught it already.

    1. I’m with you all the way where ‘Moby Dick’ is concerned and I’ve met with the same reaction to ‘Solar’ which I also enjoyed. I would have to find another two books of similar theme to go with it to include it in the Summer School but I do have an option that includes his later novel ‘Sweet Tooth’.

  5. That’s probably a good hint to me that I shouldn’t do a re-read of Equal Music. I know I enjoyed it at the time and put it to one side thinking it would be a good one to read again at some point. I know there were some points where I raised an eyebrow at the improbability of the plot but pushed it to one side while I focused on the music. I don’t want to spoil that experience.

    Marmite books? We have quite a few in our book club – usually its just me that takes the minority and contrary viewpoint though. I can’t remember their names because they’re often that bad I try to obliterate them from my memory

    1. Oh yes, I know that feeling when you are the only one defending a novel that was probably your suggestion in the first place! The interesting thing about the Trapido was that the group was as evenly spilt as an odd number of people could be.

  6. Sounds like there were some great discussions! as for marmite books, it seems in groups I have been in that it happens most around genre-type books or books with magical realism in them. I was in a group once that read Like Water for Chocolate and half the group loved it and have hated it because it wasn’t realistic.

    1. Yes, Stefanie, I think you’re right about the genre and magic realism issues. What is interesting about the Trapido is that it doesn’t fit into either of those categories. I think people reacted against the characters and the structure. Exactly the things I liked!

  7. I love Barbara Trapido and can’t for the life of me imagine why anyone would hate her books. Isn’t it odd how some novels divide? I can only remember The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters creating two separate camps at my book group, and who’d a thunk that would happen, either?

    1. I didn’t read enough of ‘The Little Stranger’ to make an assessment. I got to the point where I could see what was going to happen to the dog and couldn’t read past it. I wouldn’t damn it for that reason though.

  8. Your summer school sounds amazing. I recently discovered Trapido because they are reissuing (or publishing for the first time, I’m not sure) her books in paperback here. She seems so likable! I’m surprised people disliked her. You have a great reading list: wish I could have been there!

  9. Now I’m not sure about reading An Equal Music, which I’ve had for a few years now and not got round to reading yet. I’m trying to weed out books I’m never going to read/re-read at the moment.

    Saturday by Ian MacEwan is another ‘marmite’ book I think – I liked it but I know others thought it was awful. I wasn’t keen though on either Solar or Sweet Tooth.

    1. Actually, those of us who were reading the book for the second time had enjoyed it the first time round, Margaret, so perhaps the trick is not to read it twice.
      I think that McEwan is a marmite author all told. I know he certainly divides our book group.

  10. I would say Wuthering Heights gets extreme reactions from readers for and against. A lot comes down to how people react to the characters especially Heathcliff.

  11. How interesting – I read “An Equal Music” when it came out, but haven’t re-read it yet. “The Black Prince” was the marmite book in my Iris Murdoch readalong – from love to pure hatred!

    1. I only got part was through ‘The Black Prince’, Liz because it echoed too much my own situation and was very painful. Perhaps the time has come to give it another chance. Life has moved on and I don’t think it would hurt quite so much now.

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