The Sparrow is one of my favourite books of all time, and I’ve read it numerous times in all sorts of places, because it’s the kind of book that develops more nuances every time it’s read. At least in my opinion. But this time, I read it to an eye with what people might not like about it, because I was intrigued by a friend’s less than thrilled response to it, considering that most of the people I know love it.
If you haven’t read The Sparrow, you really should, because I would personally list it among the books which has changed my life and perspective on the world, as well as on religion. The first time I read it, I found myself unable to read anything else for about six hours afterwards, which is pretty much a record for me. The book moved me so much, and so intensely, that it required deep and careful digesting, so I ended up rereading it immediately after I had finished it.
There are many reasons that I love this book, and I don’t really feel like enumerating them all this morning. I also don’t want to spoil the plot, because it is complex and interesting and I think it’s better to let it unfold naturally the first time you read the book. I will say that one of the things that endears me most about this book is the fact that I like all of the characters. That may not sound like a big deal to you, but I find that in every book I read, there’s at least one character that I hate (beyond the obvious bad guys). Especially women. I often find myself loathing female characters. But that’s not the case with The Sparrow; I genuinely like all of the characters, and I am interested in their motivations, their fates, their thoughts. That’s a pretty big breakthrough for me.
One thing about the book which I could see as irritating is the secrecy. Some lines in the book remind me of a group of high school girls getting together and making inferences to make themselves seem more experienced, more knowledgeable, more wounded. There are a few of those little lines slipped in there, all smug like, and sometimes the implication and the meaning of these lines isn’t clear, so you’re left feeling like you’ve missed something, perhaps something crucial, so you go back and read them again in an attempt to make them less puzzling.
I could also see not being that into the book if you’re not into science fiction, because The Sparrow is science fiction. I always hesitant to apply that label to books, because it conjures up an image of cheap, scrappy paperbacks with lurid covers. Some of my favourite books fall within the science fiction genre, and I would argue that these books are also among the greatest of all time. 1984, say. But if you have a block about science fiction, I suppose this book wouldn’t be very enjoyable, especially because Russell is a scientist, so the book has some pretty sound and interesting science.
Of course, so much of not liking books is about personal taste. Maybe my friend just didn’t like the style of the writing, or wasn’t engaged enough by the plot. I’ve noticed that when I don’t like a book, I have a hard time articulating why that is. I usually end up saying something lame like “the part in chapter six just put me off,” but that’s not really why I didn’t like the book. I just…didn’t like it. And with billions of books in the world, there’s a pretty safe bet that everyone can’t like everything.
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. Published 1996, 405 pages. Fiction.
(Edited to correct the date of publication, which was erroneously typed as 1886 instead of 1996 because I am still not used to my new keyboard. My bad.)