Why you should consider other perspectives in your reading
Earlier this year, I read Catherine Lacey's second novel, The Answers, to review it for a publication. It drew me because I'd seen it on several lists as a "book to watch for" or "best new book of the month."
I wasn't sure what to make of it as I read. It certainly wasn't what I thought it would be. A surrealist take on modern dating culture, the cult of celebrity, and men's and women's roles in society, The Answers left me with more questions than answers. Mostly, the question was: what are people seeing in this book?
The story centers on Mary Parsons, an introverted, quiet woman who is beset by a strange medical condition that doctors are unable to diagnose. She finds relief only through PAKing - Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia, which drives her bills through the roof. Her full-time job isn't enough to pay for her treatments, so Mary finds a second paying job. She becomes the "Emotional Girlfriend" in a bizarre social experiment funded by enigmatic movie star Kurt Sky.
As part of the experiment, Sky employs several different women to fulfill the specific "functions" that women typically employ in a relationship with a man. The Anger Girlfriend starts fights, the Mundanity Girlfriend just hangs around his apartment not talking, and the Maternal Girlfriend mothers him by washing his laundry and cooking. Mary and the other women get paid very well for their efforts. But soon, Mary blurs the lines between work and reality.
It sounds like a great premise, but after I finished, I decided I hated it. I found it rambling and disjointed. The first half of the novel focuses on Mary, while the latter half is more about Kurt. The other characters that surround Mary's life are just bizarre, and the resolution felt too neat and packaged. In fact, for the most part, I felt the entire story was just building to one unsatisfying twist ending. I felt the same sort of anger and disappointment I've felt after every M. Night Shyamalan film.
So okay, I didn't like it. Maybe it just wasn't for me. There's nothing particularly wrong with that. But not too long after I finished it, I saw another writer on Twitter list it as her favorite book. I didn't understand how anyone could like the novel, much less consider it a favorite. The New York Times review was equally glowing. I started to wonder if I'd missed something. The book seemed to really connect with women in particular. Which got me thinking: Did my perspective as a male bar me from enjoying the novel, or missing its point?
I think the answer is partly yes, partly no. It will always be true that there will be books other people love that I just don't. And there will always be books that I love that other people hate. That's part of the power of art. But I also think it would be a mistake to just dismiss The Answers (or any book, really) out of hand without interrogating my own reaction to it. Why was I unable to connect with it? Was it really the writing, or is there something else going on?
I don't believe there's such a thing as novels just "for women" or "for men." That's a dangerous outlook to have. I believe everyone should read widely and diversely, and it's important to challenge yourself in your reading material. But obviously, we're not going to like everything we read. What, then, do we do with that? I think it's okay to have your own opinion and disagree with people. After reading The Answers, though, I realized I need to question my opinions even more.
It was a good reminder that no matter how hard I might try to empathize, I will never fully appreciate art from another person's perspective. Who I am and the privileges afforded to me will always color my experiences and enjoyment of it. But I can seek to understand others who disagree with me and consider their opinions and perspectives in my analysis of a book. That will create a richer experience for us both.
And who knows? It may even change my mind.
Have you read The Answers and loved it? I would love to hear what made it speak to you!