This week in reading…

Cover image, Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Over the weekend, I read the second installment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy.  I started the third book last night.  I am not quite sure what to say about this book.  It was thrilling and entertaining and a little bit annoying.  I suppose my real problem with this series is that it’s really just one big story split up into three books.  Catching Fire is a continuation of The Hunger Games.  It pretty much picks up where the first book left off rather precipitously, and it wends its way through the middle portion of the overall story arc until its own untimely end.

As a society, we seem to expect that a story will require several volumes to be told in full.  I wonder how much of this expectation goes back to the decision to publish The Lord of the Rings in three volumes, not because they are three separate books but because there were printing limitations that prohibited the work from being published in one volume.  However strange it is, I think I would like this series more if it were told in one, perhaps long book rather than split into three books.  It’s one story.

Anyway.  When I was twenty, I took a class on Proust at my local community college.  When we got to Within a Budding Grove (the English title from the translation I used, the Modern Library version), the professor gave a lecture on sequels – why do they exist?  When are they tolerable?  He asked us to think of all the terrible sequels we knew, and together we discovered that the fatal flaw that often besets a sequel is that sequels are often just do-overs of their well-received originals.  Saturday Night Fever was AWESOME!  Let’s make Staying Alive!  I bet it will be SUPER awesome!  Oh, wait… no, that was a mistake.  In order for a sequel to be worthwhile, it has to contain a story that needs to be told, one that wasn’t told in the original story.  Something needs to change.  In Within a Budding Grove, it is the narrator who changes, who enters adolescence and now has to explore and discover how those changes within himself affect the relationships that are established in the first volume (Swann’s Way) and affect the ways that he will establish new relationships (all those budding young girls…).  Even though it is the second volume in a single overarching work, Within a Budding Grove contains a story that needs to be told.

Not so, Catching Fire, which merely continues unabated from where The Hunger Games leaves off.  And that’s why it annoyed me… I know I’m expecting way too much from a popular book that is marketed for young adults, but I was irked by the lack of character development in Katniss.  Gale changes, Peeta changes, Haymitch changes, but Katniss is as whiny and irritating as ever, except now she has nightmares.  I enjoyed the book, but I wanted more from it.

Anyone else love Pygmalion stories?  I sure do, and I really enjoyed this one.  To be honest, I don’t know what it says about me that I enjoy stories in which a male character molds and forms a female character into a vision of perfection and eventually (very eventually, as the case may be) grapples with the Mr. Darcy struggle–is she good enough for him?  Can he turn his back on his duties and follow his heart, even though it means betraying his principles?–and realizes that the important point is not what he can stand to give up in order to have her but what he will gain with her.  These stories are almost always about the male character’s internal struggle, because he’s obviously so awesome that the female character falls in love with him in the very beginning, even when he’s being a tard.  To the female character is relegated all the heartache that attends knowing she is not worthy of the affections of the man she loves–why is she not worthy?  Well, because he says so–but she doesn’t generally undergo any change at all.  She is loving and steadfast at the beginning, and she is loving, forgiving, and steadfast at the end.

However incongruous it might seem, A Perfect Bride seemed to me to be very close to an Austen-what-if? story that decided to pair Darcy with Jane in a situation in which Jane was alone in the world and utterly destitute.  I enjoyed the book, but it was a little strange.

Let me complain about covers some more.  This book is great, but you’d never guess from this lame cover.  One of the best things about the book is that neither character is particularly attractive.  In fact, the male character is covered with small pox scars.  Now look at the dude on the cover… is he seriously giant, black haired, and covered with scars?  No.  So why the hell is he on the cover?  And what’s with his collar?  He looks like he’s wearing a dress I used to have when I was a little girl.

I hate (HATE) it when romance authors try to write complicated characters and fail.  One of the easiest ways for an author to fail at a characterization attempt is to write a less than perfectly attractive character and not know how to make that character react to relevant stimuli.  (If you want a great example of truly abysmal characterization, check out The Ugly Duckling Debutante by Rachel Van Dyken.)  The Raven Prince explores the deep insecurities that each character has about his or her appearance but does not make those insecurities the primary focus of character development.  It’s fabulous.  I don’t know anyone who is perfectly happy except for one physical flaw… we are all a mishmash of insecurities relating to a wide variety of causes.  The characters in The Raven Prince reflect that complexity, and that’s what makes the book so good.

Now, I have to say that I don’t mind love scenes in the books that I read, but this book was a bit… over the top.  That said, I’m happy to get through a few jarringly steamy love scenes in order to read a book that is written by an author who so obviously takes her craft seriously.