My sister Susan once said she felt compelled to finish a book once she started reading it, even if she wasn’t enjoying it. I advised her otherwise. I told her I had calculated how many books I had left to read in my life given my reading rate and average expected life span. It wasn’t nearly as many as I wanted it to be.
Since then, my sister started putting books down she didn’t love. And then when I expressed interest in her copy of Middlesex, she handed over the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner from Jeffrey Eugenides, whose The Marriage Plot I greatly appreciated.
Somehow I had missed Middlesex when it first came out although I’d heard a lot about it. The kids were young then. I was deep in my consulting business and writing. So I looked forward to coming home and cracking the spine. Two hundred pages later, I put it down, with more than three hundred pages to go.
It’s a great novel, I’m sure. But it was slow going for me and I didn’t find the narrator as compelling as apparently everyone else had, and the whole hermaphrodite thing didn’t fascinate me.
It was probably a case of trying to read the wrong book at the wrong time. Because right after putting Middlesex down I picked up Tom Perrotta’s Tracy Flick Can’t Win, an easy, short read from a novelist I’ve always admired (The Leftovers, Little Children, Election). A day later I’m halfway through.
So it’s okay to put books down, but I can’t say with assurance it’s okay that I calculated how many books I might potentially have left to read in my lifetime, because that number will never be enough given how many great books there are.
Speaking of how many times you might do something in your remaining life, we now arrive at In Flight, my latest novel. If you haven’t been browbeaten too many times in your life by me to give it a read, I want to share a brief passage about the story’s protagonist, Robert Besch, whose wife, Sasha, has just declined his sexual advances. Robert performs a calculation about how many more times he might have sex in his life:
“. . . the thing about a long marriage is that you always have tomorrow. If you don’t make love Friday, there’s Saturday or Sunday or next week. If you have an argument tonight, cooler heads can prevail in the morning. If you haven’t been out together in ages, there’s always another date night on the horizon. That sense of urgency, embracing the philosophy of carpe diem because tomorrow might not come, it didn’t exist after so many years together. Which was sad, if you let it be, because it opened the door for complacency. If anyone had told him before he’d gotten married that he might at some point go weeks without having sex with his wife (not counting postpartum and after the miscarriage), Robert would have scoffed at the idea. But last night while waiting for Sasha to come to bed, he’d made the mistake of counting the number of times they’d made love in the past month. He multiplied the number by twelve months and then reduced it by 20 percent per year to account for aging and loss of potency over the twenty-eight years he had remaining in the average male lifespan. He added the totals from all the years to project how many more times he’d have sex in his lifetime. It was a depressing number, and he regretted calculating it.”
One more thing about Tom Perrotta’s Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Tracy was the main character in Perrotta’s breakout novel, Election, and she’s back on the scene some twenty years later. I’m always interested when writers keep a character alive after the last page of the novel in which a character first appears. As a writer, you’re just not done with that character. You’re itching, restless. There’s more story to tell.
This happened to me after Stash, when I knew the story about the two younger, secondary characters, Dana and Aaron, wasn’t finished. That’s why I wrote The Finish Line, which hasn’t seen its publication day yet, but you can read the first chapter here. Unless you put it down. I hope you don’t.