Monday, May 4, 2009

Review and Book Club Follow Up: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

When I was a teenager, I wasn't allowed to go see rated R films. I wasn't always obedient, though, so when some friends invited me to go see The English Patient, I was so there. And wow...did I love it. In fact, I have only seen this film once, but it's a powerful example of the way a film or story can sear itself onto your brain, into your life. I have very vivid memories of it, of the way it captivated me emotionally. I wept through the conclusion of it, my friend told me I sank down into my seat to hide my tears. (By the way, it's sure your sins will find you out. My parents did and I was grounded.)

To this day, when asked, I usually list it as a favorite movie. I had often pondered reading the book but feared I wouldn't find the book nearly as interesting as the movie. Now, I am grateful for the way the film is so firmly embedded into my mind because I'm fairly certain I would have given up on the book if I hadn't had the story structure and visuals of the film to rely upon.

The English Patient is not the kind of book you pick up and think you will read through easily. At first I wasn't too worried, it wasn't that long and I figured I would read it quickly enough. I was very wrong. It took me quite awhile to read this book as I often had no idea what I was reading. I had to go back and reread sections and I was still confused. I had a hard time latching onto any timeline or cohesive plot. If I didn't have the images of the film in my mind, or if this wasn't a book club pick, I would never have been able to complete it.

The English Patient takes place mostly at an abandoned convent in Italy where a man who has been severely burned is cared for by a nurse who is suffering from severe fatigue of caring for the dying. A few other characters come into their lives..Carvaggio who was a thief that was caught in the act and tortured, and Kip, who dismantles bombs. Their stories are all told in bits and pieces throughout the book.

The writing is at times beautiful, there is no doubt about that. The themes of the book can be picked out, and there were a few times where I did want to keep turning the pages! But overall, while I'm glad to now say that I've read the book, I'm unlikely to pick up more books from this author. It was too much work with not enough pay-off for me. I do want to rewatch the movie though and I'll let you know if I still love it.

Rating: 4/5 (I can recognize the quality of the writing)
Things You Might Want to Know: There are some sexual references and a bit of language.

Book Club
Unlike with 13 Reasons Why, we actually found little to discuss about the story itself in book club! We spent a fair bit of time talking about how much better the movie was (okay that was only me), how difficult the writing was, etc. We did manage to touch on some themes from the book and discuss the overall character development. Most book club members seemed particularly sympathetic to Kip and Hana, while I really didn't care deeply about anyone. Honestly, I loved the movie for the tragic love story (love those!) and it wasn't quite as powerful in the book. I think we are all glad to have read the book, but we probably won't be rereading it!

Have you read The English Patient? Did we totally miss the importance of this book? Do share your thoughts!



bermudaonion said...

Great follow-up Amy! This was my second time reading the book and I was still lost in parts of it. At times, I just felt like it was over my head.

Karen Harrington said...

This is one of my all time favorite books and movies. I agree that sometimes reading Ondaatje is work, but to me, it's worth it. Of all of his novels, The English Patient is the hardest to follow, I think, because of it's structure. If you liked the Hana character, you might be interested in The Skin of a Lion - Ondaatje's previous novel, where we meet Hana as a girl. Carravagio also appears in this book, too.

Amee said...

I need to watch the movie (haven't read the book either). When it came out I wasn't allowed to watch it either and have never really thought about it since. I do remember seeing it on Seinfeld where Elaine ends up seeing it several times and hates it, I think. I'm not sure. Anyway, I want to watch it now! ;)

Nancy said...

I have heard of the movie (haven't seen it), but I didn't even know it was a book. Know I'd like to read it and see the movie.
By the way I sent you an e-mail with my shipping information for The Reincarnationist. If you don't get it for some reason please let me know. Thanks for picking me!

Julie P. said...

Great wrap-up! I had a comment on my review that I really need to read it again b/c I will get so much more out of it. I believe that, but there are so many other books that I want to read first.

Meghan said...

I think most of the problem was that it was definitely over my head and quite possibly most people's! It was hard to think of things to discuss when I didn't really feel connected or interested in most of the issues.

I am, however, like you and adore tragic love stories, so I'm going to check the movie out. ;)

Beth F said...

Great wrap-up the club meeting. I think some of themes were so ephemeral that it was difficult to distill them into concrete terms for a discussion.

Toni said...

You know... after all the reviews.. I find that I want to tackle this one. And watch the movie again. :) Great Review.

Darlene said...

I've seen the movie a few times and absolutely loved it. From what I'm reading of the reviews though it seems that this novel translated better into a movie for people. I do have the book on my shelves somewhere though.

Christopher said...

Amy, this is the first time I've posted a comment on your blog. I happen to have used "The English Patient" in my Freshman English composition class at Santa Monica College, and most of my students loved the book, even the men, to my surprise. Like you, I loved the film--a deeply engaging, romantic, and tragic film--and I found the book just as great in its own way.

The book doesn't follow the film exactly, but parts are so poetic, that I fell right in, such as the Englishman listening intently on the bottom of page seven. I am in awe, too, how we're able to go from a close third-person point of view with Hanna, to a first-person account with the Englishman because she's reading his journal.

Many of my students simply felt for both of them. Because you did not, that's a good reason why you didn't like it.

For another book that's equally lyrical from a great film, try reading "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham. I used that in an English class, too, and they loved it.

--Christopher Meeks

S. Krishna said...

I liked the movie better too! I really need to write my wrap-up post, wonder if it's ever going to happen!

Anna said...

I posted about this here on War Through the Generations.

Diary of an Eccentric

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