Thursday, June 6, 2013

#65 "The Man Who Loved Children" by Christina Stead

My slow, muddling pace continues. But at least it continues, and I have finished #65, The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead.

This book started off as slow as any book I've read so far, which is probably why it took me six weeks to read it. The first 200 pages took over five weeks, and the last 350 pages only a couple of days. I think this speaks to the book's pace quite well. While it started off so very slow, it eventually had me engrossed in it as
few others have. The last 150 pages were, for me, as much of a page turner as any I've encountered.

The Pollits are a troubled family living in FDR's Washington DC. The family is headed by Sam and his wife Henrietta (Henny), and consists of six, later seven, children, most notably the oldest daughter, Louisa. Troubled may be an understatement too, as Sam and Henny haven't been on speaking terms for years, communicating only through notes and their children. Their dislike of each other knows no bounds, and it is only fear of losing the children that keeps them together.

When the family is struck by a couple of problems, money problems soon develop, and the family descends into what could be described as chaotic chaos. Things deteriorate quickly for the Pollits, and there wasn't much there to begin with, before everything comes to an inevitable, tragic end.

When the book begins, we are slowly introduced to the various troubled members of the Pollit family, and it is here where the book moves quite slowly. It isn't that the characters aren't interesting, far from it, but rather until we get to know them, their words and actions often seem to defy comprehension. As we learn about each character, things begin to make sense.

I suppose this is the case for every book, as you get to know the players involved, but I found it to be a particularly long process in The Man Who Loved Children. It took a long time to truly understand the circumstances under which they live, and a long time to understand that Henny and Sam aren't just a couple going through a few problems. They truly hate each other, with passion.

Their hatred of each other is the cloud that looms over the children and dominated their lives. But it isn't just the parents' hate for each other, but how both use the children to get at each other, how they put the children down to feel better about themselves, and how they take little interest in the children, despite them being the only thing holding the family together.

What I found so interesting with this book was the hatred between Sam and Henny. At times it was almost difficult to read their speaking about each other, as it was depressing to think about people living in such a household. But at the same time, it was fascinating. And when things took a turn for the worse, the book played out like a car wreck in slow motion; you know the collision is coming, but you aren't entirely sure from where.

I think the mood of the Pollit household was best summed up by Jonathan Franzen in the New York Times, who wrote, "the book operates at a pitch of psychological violence that makes Revolutionary Road look like Everybody Loves Raymond." At times, after reading a couple of chapters, I'd have to put the book down just to take a breather, and let the drama I had just read soak in. The fighting, the arguing, the mental and physical pain, was at times overwhelming.

But interestingly enough, I never felt sorry for any of the characters. At times there may have been some pity for the children, but never was I sympathetic to either Sam or Henny. I don't mean this in a bad way in that I didn't care about their outcome, but rather that because each of them was so awful in their own way, neither was really 'at fault;' it was a total team effort. And because the children never really seemed to mind their situation, they seemed to just go with the flow, it was as if the reader was being given the chance to look in on this chaos, without having to worry about the consequences.

By the time the collision began, I had become so wrapped up in the chaos of the house, I just had to know how it would happen, and it was at this point the book became a true 'page turner.' Suddenly I couldn't read fast enough, so desperate to know how it would all unfold, and how these Pollits would meet their demise.

I often think to myself that one shouldn't bother reading a book that they aren't enjoying. Life is too short, and there are too many books out there to read (except for books I"m reading for this list, of course, which must be finished). But I always worry that it might get better and that until I've read the whole thing, I haven't really read what the author had intended. The Man Who Loved Children is a perfect example of why I feel this way; I wanted to stop reading this book many times, but now I'll be forever thankful I didn't.

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