Back from the DNF: The English Patient, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Sisters Brothers


DNF: abbreviation 1. Did Not Finish 2. The book blogger kiss of death

In Back from the DNF, I give previously DNF’d books a second chance, because sometimes, it’s not the book, it’s me. Maybe I read it too young. Maybe I read it while pregnant or postpartum (baby brain is real!) Maybe it just wasn’t the right time.

I made a list of books that didn’t get a fair shake, and will reread and review to see if anything’s changed. If you want to join me, feel free to steal the concept, title, and sweet banner.

My DNF List:

  • Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne: Pregnancy brain
  • Tinker Tailor Solider Spy by John LeCarre: Baby brain
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: Too young (22)
  • The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubuois III: Too young (20)
  • Fifth Business by Robertson Davies: Too young (17)
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: Too young (10)

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje is my bae. Did I say that right?

Michael Ondaatje is my bae. Did I say that right?

My official reason for DNFing The English Patient is “too young,” but at 22, that’s a bit of a stretch. I was an adult. I was living on my own and working at a real job. I was also single after five years of serial monogamy, and in my newfound freedom my maturity level plummeted. I was consumed by shopping, clubbing, and boys for a couple years. Thankfully this was before the advent of social media. I shudder to think of the bar-bathroom selfies that never were.

I tried to keep up appearances in my reading, though. I read a lot of DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen around this time. I picked up The English Patient thinking it was a “serious” book in this vein, and it is serious, but it’s very different from those old-school classics. You can’t just plow through it and you can’t rely on your memory of other similar books because there aren’t any. I don’t know how to classify The English Patient – adventure, romance, a little magical realism, post-colonial literature, war literature, English, Canadian, Indian… I don’t know. On first read, I was overwhelmed and couldn’t follow the threads. I gave up a few chapters in and hurled it into my closet. This time, I was overwhelmed in a good way, and again hurled the book with some violence on the bathroom counter (don’t judge, it was my kids’ bathtime) because the ending hurt my heart so much.

At 22 I couldn’t process this story. I thought I knew lots about love and tragedy and thought of myself as very jaded, but of course I didn’t and I wasn’t. Thankfully I grew up enough in eleven years to appreciate this book.

Verdict: It was me. 

Edition I read in 1991. I find this whole cover unsettling.

Edition I read in 1991. I find this whole cover unsettling.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
I read this children’s classic as a child, so I can’t just say I was “too young.” At ten, I was starting to read adults books (there was no such thing as YA (thank god)) and I remember picking up A Wrinkle in Time and thinking, well, it’s a kid’s book but it’s for smart kids. I was very invested in my identify as a smart kid, so when I couldn’t wrap my brain around what was happening in this book, it was embarrassing. Shameful. I was also disappointed that I’d never get to read A Swiftly Tilting Planet because it’s a great title.

What I didn’t get as a kid is that Wrinkle is a Christian allegory (I didn’t get that about Chronicles of Narnia either. Wasn’t as smart as I thought.) But I got it this time. Oh lord did I get it. And okay, I’m not religious, but I’m okay with religious themes in fiction (see?) if it’s well written.This just isn’t. A very thin story, stilted dialog that contributes little to the plot, and an author banging us over the head with her philosophy: it’s Atlas Shrugged for kids. And don’t get me started on the ending. All I can do is quote Professor Frink: “The secret ingredient is… love?! Who’s been screwing with this thing?”

I will give L’Engle props for the creepy kids who bounce balls and jump rope in sync. That shit creeped me out today as much as it did 24 years ago.

The verdict: it’s the book.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

My 4 year old loves this cover. He knows what's up.

My 4 year old loves this cover. He knows what’s up.

Alright, I’m cheating a bit. When I tossed The Sisters Brothers aside, I knew I would pick it up a few weeks later for book club. But I did toss it aside. I got about 20 pages in and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I’m currently 200 and some pages in on round two and loving it. I can’t account for the change of heart. There`s one particular line that made me roll my eyes so hard the first time I read it, and now stands as my favourite in the whole book so far: the main character imagines his poor, sick horses’s thoughts, as he’s whipping him, to be, “sad life, sad life.”

I don’t know if it was a full moon or I was suffering from a case of the Mondays or what, the first time round. Now all I can do is join the chorus: read this book. Immediately. If you don’t like it, take a break for a few weeks and try, try again.

The verdict: it was me.

Alright, you know the drill: tell me about your second chance books, or tell me which books you’re thinking of trying again.



  1. Heather

    Boy, these books are lucky to have a reader like you. If I DNF a book, there is no way I’m picking it up again. I’ve DNF’d very few books in my life, but I quit reading each of them for very good reason. Haha! Nope, you won’t see me touching my small DNF list with a ten-foot pole.

  2. Naomi

    This is a fun idea! I think, though, my version of this would be a bit different. Instead of reading my DNFs, I think I would want to re-read some books that I read a long time ago when I was too young to really appreciate what I was reading. You know, like the classics I read in high school and university, and the books I wanted to read to feel more ‘cultured’, but I was just too young to get. Someday I will get around to doing this…

    As for the three books in your post; I haven’t read The English Patient – I’ve always been kind of scared to; I really liked The Sisters Brothers; I also liked A Wrinkle in Time when I was young, but I haven’t read it since. Now I’m curious to know what I’d think of it. I had the same copy of it, and it is a bit creepy.

    Is the ban over? 🙂

  3. writereads

    I didn’t read A Wrinkle in Time as a child, but we did the graphic novel version for our 3rd podcast. I had almost an identical reaction to it. The dialogue bothered me the most.

    The English Patient is not my favourite Ondaatje. There’s a sort of flabbiness to it that his really excellent novels don’t have (please don’t ask me to explain how a novel can be flabby).

    My DNF pile is pretty small, and, for most of them, I’m positive that it was the book and not me, but it is pretty rare for me not to finish a book that I’ve started. This summer I brought Middlemarch back from the DNF for my Victoria Day Self-Challenge, and it was a wonderful experience. It was a completely different book than the one I tried to read 15 years ago. Another DNF, that dovetails nicely with the Novella in November, is Jim Harrison’s (an author whom I love) The Woman Lit by Fireflies (in the novella collection of the same name). For some reason I just couldn’t finish it. I’m going to give it another shot, though. The other title in that pile is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I think that one got put aside because of time constraints. I had to get something else read and just never got back to it. I’m going to make another run at it too. – Kirt

  4. wanderingbibliophile

    Great idea. I have a ton of DNFs. Most of the time I put the books down because I recognize that I am not in the right headspace or just not ready to tackle the complexity yet (Finnegans Wake, anyone?) I’m glad you revisited The Sisters Brothers. I love that book. I’m teaching it this week. DeWitt will be here in March for the MacEwan Book of the Year events. So much hilarity and melancholy in one short book.

  5. Pingback: Back From the DNF and Novellas in November | writereads
  6. Geoff W

    I agree with you. I’m rereading a lot of the books I was forced to read in high school and I’m finding that I really do appreciate and love them now. They forced too much and sometimes to mature topics on us and we couldn’t or didn’t want to comprehend them.

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