My rating: 3.5/5 stars
When his parents’ car is hit by a train, Luke, a failed actor, returns to his Edmonton hometown to attend their funeral, wrap up their affairs, and prepare their house to be sold off. But while all others around him grieve, Luke remains detached, striking up a relationship with a woman in a neighbouring house… and stumbling across evidence that his mother may have engaged in a longstanding extramarital affair herself.
I overthink book ratings. I work in marketing, so I think about the implications of a three versus a four start review, particularly for the indie or small press author. I design consumer surveys, so I know how finicky rating scales are, and I know about the biases that creep into a rating, no matter how objective you think you are.
I have plenty of my own quirks: I’m stingy with my five-star ratings. I’m a fan of the half-star (damn you, Goodreads) and often change my mind after an initial rating. And a three star rating, like I’ve given Blind Spot? Ugh, I hate a three star rating. It’s so wishy-washy. It’s a safe, “I liked it, it didn’t blow me away, but I don’t hate it” kind of rating. And while those statements do apply to this novel, I’m also still thinking about it weeks later, which isn’t wishy washy at all.
I’ve been thinking about ratings lately. How I arrive at them, what they mean, and are they fair. Check out this blog post (and my comment) on Follies Past for more on that. In the meantime, here are some things I think about when rating a novel, and how Blind Spot stacked up.
1. The basics
This one’s pretty simple: does the book have enough going for it in terms of plot, character, and style to avoid a one-star rating? I can usually tell after the first chapter. I read a preview of Blind Spot‘s first chapter and was intrigued enough to add it to be TBR list (and to request a review copy.) It presents an Artful Dodger-and-Oliver type scenario, where the streetwise older kid gets the younger kid to do his dirty work, with predictably disastrous results. It’s set in 1990s Edmonton, a very familiar place and time for me to read about bad kids smoking and getting in trouble.
I felt an immediate and uncomfortable identification with Luke. I was doing the same kind of things, in 1990s Edmonton, just a few neighbourhoods over. Miall’s straightforward writing style makes it easy to get into the story, and it fits with Luke’s character; he also seems to be a very straightforward kid trying to fit in and be cool. When we jump to Luke in his early 30s, things aren’t as straightforward – he’s got his parent’s suspicious death to deal with, on top of a failing career and empty relationship.
2. Emotional response
Five stars doesn’t mean a book is perfect; it’s usually tied to an emotional reaction on my part. I rated The Cat’s Table five stars, despite not liking an entire section of the book, and despite suspecting it wasn’t Ondaatje’s best work. I quite simply fell in love with a sentence and that was that.
Here’s where my rating for Blind Spot gets tricky. I didn’t laugh, cry, or hurl. I didn’t underline any sentences because they were beautiful. I did grow to hate Luke, after identifying with him in the beginning, though. I’m trying to figure out why I hate Luke so much. He is a major dick to his sister, indifferent to his nieces and nephews, and does that thing where you dump someone by cheating on them and waiting for them to find out and dump you. All bad, but maybe not deserving of fiery hate. I actually found myself speaking aloud at times: “Are you for real,” and “You are awful,” and several times just “ugh.”
Luke is not a sympathetic character that you’ll fall in love with. You won’t root for him. You won’t put him on your “Top Ten Fictional Characters I’d Like to Have Lunch With” list. He embodies white, upper middle class male privilege and is just so lacking in self-awareness. Oh, and he’s really really ridiculously good looking, too! I don’t know why that makes it worse, but it does!
So – I didn’t have the “this book changed my life” emotional response that earns 5 stars, but I definitely had a response.
3. Would I recommend it?
Having eliminated one and five star ratings, I think about whether I would recommend it (and to who) to figure out where it lays between two and four stars. In market research, we put a lot of stock in likelihood to recommend. It makes sense; it not only predicts what people like, but what they will share and advocate and create buzz for.
I would recommended Blind Spot, so I know I’m on the 3 or 4 stars side of things. I’m about to recommend it to the author of a novel called Spat the Dummy, which you will read about here soon, because it also features an “anti-hero” but the treatment is so different. In Spat, the hero does horrible things and is bent on self-destruction, but you feel for him. You want him to get better, to be better. In Blind Spot, Luke also seems determined to ruin himself. But I didn’t want Luke to win or get better. I wanted some comeuppance! So this is a “if you liked this, try this” type of recommendation too; I just happened to read these books side by side but I was glad I did. It made me realize how unconventional this story really is. It’s easy to sympathise with an anti-hero you think you can fix. Luke seems beyond help, somehow.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend Blind Spot to everyone. The writing is minimalist, so if you’re in the mood for poetic or lyrical, I wouldn’t start here. If you can’t handle an unlikeable main character – definitely not. And I’m not sure if I would recommend this for a “light” read – it’s blurbed that way on the cover, but I didn’t find it that light. Easy to follow, yes, but I think of “light” reads as having some kind of happy ending, or redemption, or hope – the ending of Blind Spot is very, very bleak and left me unsatisfied.
4. Am I still thinking about it?
I was leaning towards three stars. In fact, I began this review by writing “3/5 stars.” But I’m adding the .5 because for a simple story and a simple character, there’s a lot to think about. Why is Luke the way he is? Is it something about his parents? His unsatisfied mother or his absent father? Is he an alcoholic? Mentally ill? A product of a shallow society? Why can’t this young, handsome, financially secure guy can’t get his shit together, and if he can’t, what hope is there for the rest of us?
I mentioned the unsatisfying ending. After finishing, I had all sorts of questions. I immediately flipped to the front of the book, looking for a clue, and in this passage, I found something. We’re back with bad-boy Joel and 11 year old Luke:
I still longed to have his unflinching confidence. No one had ever raised him; no one looked out for him. Joel looked out for himself.
I wanted that self-reliance.
Now, so many years later, I’ve arrived.
I no longer think of this particular three-star rating as wishy-washy. Maybe it’s ambivalent. As anyone who’s watched Girl, Interrupted as many times as I have knows, ambivalent doesn’t mean you don’t care, it means you’re torn between two things. I’m torn between hating of Luke and admiring the consistency and commitment Miall brought to his character, not for a second trying redeem him. I’m torn between wishing the ending had been more hopeful, more damning, more something, and realizing that it was not supposed to be satisfying. That isn’t the point.
What, you thought I’d get through a review without making a 90s pop culture reference?
So yeah, three stars: I liked it. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t blow me away. But I’m definitely going to watch for Miall’s next novel, because it just might.
Thank you to NeWest Press for the review copy! The book launch is tonight, Friday, September 5th, 7:00 p.m. at The Black Dog on Whyte.
This is becoming a common addendum: Please go read Another Book Blog’s review, in which he took the best blog post title, and read his interview with Laurence Miall, in which he took all the good questions. *shakes fist*