Thursday, October 28, 2010

Slumdog Millionaire and The Wednesday Letters

I started out reviewing Slumdog Millionaire with Crispin: The Cross of Lead, because I read them at the same time, and they both came from my sister-in-law's library cleansing.  But I quickly realized that that would be a really unsettling combination, so Slumdog gets lumped with another strange companion, but one that is at least still geared toward adults.

Slumdog Millionaire, by Vikas Swarup, is a gripping story, but horrible in a way so that I had mixed feelings about it the whole time I was reading it.  Two weeks after finishing it, I still have mixed feelings, but they are settling more and more in the negative.  It is a fascinating story about an illiterate young man in Mumbai who is arrested for cheating after becoming the first winner of the game show, Who Will Win a Billion?  Similar to the format of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? game show that inspired it, Ram Mohammed Thomas had to answer a series of increasingly difficult trivia questions, all of which he happens to know the answer to because of his unique past.  As he explains how he knew the answer to each question, his poignant, funny, and heart-breaking life history unfolds.

It was well-written, fast-paced, and with a clever premise that kept me interested.  But the language was really bad, and the first few chapters were so full of sexual abuse that I started to think that all Indian men were either gay, incestuous, or pedophiles (or two out of three).  Ugh.  It got better after that, and it was remarkable how Ram's purity of character continued to shine in the filth around him, but there were so many horrible things portrayed that I understood why my sister-in-law said she wouldn't read it again.  (As a sidenote, I don't know how a person could stomach watching the feature film.  As horrible as it was to read, I think it would be way worse to watch on screen.)  The ending was ultimately positive and there were some wonderful moments where evil got its just reward and good won out.  But I felt like I needed to scour the creepy crawlies out of my mind when I was done.  So while Swarup had definite talent, I won't be reading any of his work again.

Again from that same batch of disparate books, I recently just finished the New York Times Bestseller (so says the cover) The Wednesday Letters, by Jason F. Wright.  A complete reversal from Slumdog Millionaire, The Wednesday Letters overpowered me with it's over-the-top sentimentality and shoddy writing.  Again I felt like I needed a mental scrubbing, but from an overdose of intellectual cotton candy instead.  How do books like this get published, let alone become bestsellers?  The basic plot wasn't so bad.  While getting ready for their elderly parents' double funeral, three adult children discover boxes of letters written from their father to their mother; one on each Wednesday throughout their marriage.  They uncover troubling secrets about their parents' and their own histories that cause crisis, resolution, and eventual healing for each of them.  It's full of emotion, moralizing, and ultimately a good message about forgiveness and cherishing those we love.

My problem with it?  The writing was mediocre at best.  There were times when the perspective would shift mid-sentence to a different character, leaving me with vertigo wondering where I was in the scene.  And every character had to be introduced with a whole pedigree and history instead of just allowing us to discover their essence as the story unfolded.  The dialogue was flat and insincere.  The plot was predictable.  I have no problem with emotional novels that celebrate relationships and family values.  But not when they are an embarrassment to decent writing.  I don't want to invest any more effort than it's worth into saying more about what was wrong with it (like how the resolution of the love triangle was shallow and contradictory), but if I'd had anything else nearby to tempt me, I wouldn't have finished reading it.  Was it a total waste of time?  Not completely, but nearly.  Very nearly.


  1. I'm going to steal from you the phrase "an embarrassment to decent writing". Next bad book I read, I'm going to declare, "You sir/madam are an embarrassment to decent writing!" Then I'm going to swirl my cloak and make a dramatic exit. From my living room.

    Thanks for the heads up on books to avoid. I'm afraid I might be in the middle of one of my own as we speak...

  2. Like Jenny, I will also use the phrase, "an embarrassment to decent writing!" And I have the perfect opportunity to use it tomorrow when we discuss "A Train to Potevka" at book group. I agree that there's nothing wrong with books that are about emotions and family and love, but it seems like it's hard to find one that's written well. Thanks for the reviews. They are both books I've thought about reading.