You’ve heard about it again and again. Friends, colleagues, lovers – they all recommend the same title. Publishers, the New York Times, even Kirkus Reviews sing its praises. What’s that? Your favorite author blurbed it? You cave and buy it. High hopes soaring, you sail through its pages. Flip. Flip. Flip. Eyes roam through word after word. The book slaps shut. It is done.
That? That was it?
An overhyped novel is not the worst bookish faux pas, but it comes close. Who is to blame for these literary let downs? The marketing team? Publishing at large? Book community groupthink? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. But it does sting a little.
Below are my five biggest 2020 book disappointments. Please remember these opinions are entirely my own; I wish to offend no one (perhaps cause a kerfuffle, but not offend), and keep your hands inside the ride at all times.
#1 The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
Let’s go right for the throat, shall we? A psychological thriller, the novel follows narrator and therapist Theo who is tasked with treating an allusive and perhaps murderous patient. After allegedly killing her husband, Alicia has not uttered a word about the events that took place, even after entering a psychiatric hospital. The two work together to piece together what actually happened and restore Alicia’s mental health. Chaos, lies, terror, and treachery ensue.
Fellow readers promised a Gone Girl-level twist, a sharp left turn to put all others to rest. Unfortunately, I was left wanting. The “big reveal” felt relatively obvious, and when the twist finally happened, a gasp remained un-uttered. I closed this book unscathed, which was not how things were supposed to go. It’s a page-turner, but The Silent Patient fails to deliver the “stomach drop” moment. Also, while I’m at it, the novel is heavy-handed with the mystery theatrics. I get it. Things are eerie.
#2 My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Braithwaite’s debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, has a lot going for it. It’s dark humor is hard-hitting and quite funny. The two sisters, Ayoola and Korede, are charmingly dysfunctional. The premise is unique. And yet, this book just falls flat.
Set in Nigeria, the novel follows Korede and Ayoola during an interesting conundrum. The younger sister, Ayoola, not only murders the men she dates but expects her older sister, Korede, to help cover up the killings. All is well (to the extent it can be) until Ayoola begins dating a doctor whom Korede is secretly in love with.
The twist isn’t the main purpose of this novel. However, it’s so lackluster that it overshadows the book’s redeeming parts. It also comes within the already short novel's final few pages, leaving a bookish bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps I have a vendetta against twists.
#3 Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
I’ll tread lightly here as I think my first mistake was to listen to this novel on audio rather than read it in physical form. Armie Hammer, you beautiful man, voice acting is not your calling. Perhaps watching the film before reading the book was also a blunder. This bildungsroman/romance strikes such an emotional blow at first viewing, so much so that reading the novel afterwards felt dulled.
For those unfamiliar with CMBYN, the novel follows Elio and Oliver during a summer in Italy. The two meet, and an instant connection blossoms. Parsing out the bounds of that connection and their subsequent relationship fills in the rest of the story. It’s full of longing, lust, first love. It’s heart-wrenching, really.
Aciman is lauded for his writing style, which I can understand, but at times it felt arduous. I don’t think his metaphors were that clean either. His prose is lush and almost gregarious, yet, I wish he’d cut the mental frolic through the forest a bit shorter.
#4 Beach Read by Emily Henry
Beach Read is sweet, but I will struggle to remember anything that happened in it for the remainder of my days.
Following two young writers, Augustus and January, the story unfolds when the pair coincidentally become neighbors in a small beach town. Backed by college-era grudges held against each other, the writers, both also coincidentally facing writer’s block, strike a deal. They’ll switch genres to see who can write the bestseller. Cue the flirty banter.
So many details of this book had no logical motivation. I am still stuck on Augustus’ obsession with cults. Are we reading a thriller? Is someone going to die? And the ending. Oh, the ending. I can’t say anything concrete without spoiling the novel, but where has imagination gone!
#5 Circe by Madeline Miller
This book is disappointing by comparison. I read it before picking up Miller’s debut novel, The Song of Achilles and initially loved Circe. I then backtracked, read the debut, thought some more about Circe, and ended up feeling dissatisfied with the book. My issues with the novel boil down to tension, suspense, and pacing.
Miller’s second book centers on a creative retelling – more of a pivot really – of The Odyssey, imagining Circe at the story’s center rather than Odysseus. The novel follows much of the same plotline as the original epic, but it builds out Circe’s narrative and role.
Here is my double-edged critique: Miller deftly maneuvered and reconstructed Greek mythology for Circe. She’s truly a master of her craft. But by sticking so close to the source material, the novel feels as long as The Odyssey, and in several places, it drags, especially when compared to the fast pace of The Song of Achilles. I almost wish the book were a novella to punch up the tension. By page 200, I was so tired of inhabiting Circe’s head.