By Invitation Only

Lately? I’m re-discovering Jane Austen and falling in love all over again. I started with Northanger Abbey, a book I’d never read. I was bowled over by its cleverness, humor, delicious language, and lively pace. And then there’s her little gem of an epistolary novel, Lady Susan, whose scheming main character is great fun to hate. Finally, I just finished Mansfield Park, but not without dragging my feet. A lot. I had a great deal of trouble, you see, caring what happens to the insufferable, self-righteous heroine, Fanny. Park is the only Austen book I can’t really admire, not because it’s not strongly written and admirably constructed, but because Miss Goodie Two Shoes is simply so hard to take!

 Which started me thinking about other protagonists I might not be inclined to follow through a book. Some of them, like Melville’s Ahab, are folks even their authors knew better than to foist on us without a buffer. The white whale’s nemesis speaks like thunder, but without Ishmael’s more judicious voice for balance, could we bear the blast? A fellow writer, who’s gone back to grad school, is reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the first time. She emailed me that she just doesn’t think she can take any more of this character’s “victim mentality.” Since I adore Hardy’s novel, I begged to differ. But I also realized how individual our responses can be to main characters. And why not? I might introduce the same person to four friends at a party, and never know which combination will click. 

So how about you? Which protagonists do you wish you’d never been introduced to? I’m not talking about characters who start out totally unappealing and then turn likeable à la Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. And I certainly don’t mean delightfully, unrepentantly immoral or flawed m.c.’s like Gatsby or Scarlett O’Hara. I want to know, instead, who rubs you the wrong way from start to finish. (If you finish!) Maybe it’s a character the author doesn’t even know is unspeakable. (Does Philip Roth have any idea how truly loathsome Portnoy is?) Or perhaps it’s one who’s just plain boring. (I’m looking at you, Bella.) Bland or irritating, whiny or obnoxious, let’s invite them all together right here—for the world’s worst party! 

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “By Invitation Only

  1. The husband AND the wife from GONE GIRL.

    • louisehawes

      I think you’ll get a lot of folks who agree with you, Monica. The consensus on goodreads seems to be that everyone feels sorry for their child! I think we’ll definitely have to separate them at this losers’ party, for the general welfare!

  2. Monica Roe

    Nancy Drew. I have to admit that I loved her as a child, but now that I revisit her as an adult reader…gah. She’s pretty, she’s brilliant, she cooks, she knows judo, ballet, bagpipes, you name it. Her incessant brilliance at absolutely everything can quickly become profoundly irritating. I do however, continue to love the fact that Ned Nickerson was pretty much a boy-toy who spent most of the books tucked away at Emerson College, only making appearances when Nancy needed an assistant or some arm candy.

    • louisehawes

      And don’t forget her fabulous car, Monica! Oh, thank you for bringing it all back. I’d forgotten how powerful she seemed, how sure and slick and all the things I wanted to be. Not. As it turned out. Maybe we can sit her next to Portnoy?

  3. Stephen Wilder

    Thomas Covenant starts out being really hard to like, but he eventually becomes somewhat better. But it’s the beginning of the third book before he does anything decent at all. And you’re still never sure whether he will save the world or destroy it. A very interesting psychological study!

  4. louisehawes

    It seems, Steve, readers of this series fall into two camps– those who can’t stand Covenant but keep reading; and those who can’t stand Covenant and don’t! So thanks for gracing our party with a very good example of a completely unappealing hero 🙂

    • Stephen Wilder

      By the end of the second trilogy I liked Covenant, but it took a while! And it was because of his brokenness that he could accomplish what he did.
      I wish someone would do a good movie from those books!
      Kind of like Lord of the Rings, but darker and deeper.

      • louisehawes

        I’d say TC still qualifies for our party for protagonists of questionable merit. Anyone that it takes two trilogies to warm up to (and who does what he does at the beginning of the first to a young woman who heals him) is pretty unattractive, to put it mildly 🙂 A lot of readers have drawn the comparison to Lord of the Rings, though, and you’re right about the movie potential!

  5. It’s been a long time since I read “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but how about George and Martha, both, from that amazing play? It’s one of the most gripping books I’ve ever read, but I sure wouldn’t want to have dinner with them – or share a drink in a living room.

    • louisehawes

      Perfectly understandable, Gretchen! Now we’ve got two repulsive couples: how do you think George and Martha would handle Amy and Nick?! The mind boggles!

  6. louisehawes

    And maybe we should get Guy Grand, from Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, to host this get-together? He could certainly provide some disgusting party games and prizes!

  7. Susan

    Neat post! I have two. First up, Serena in the book by that title by Ron Rash. At first I hoped she would be an example of an early feminist but she grew meaner & more ruthless by the page. I gave up on the book half way through because she annoyed me so much. Second up, Xuela in The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid. Xuela is a character who is determined to find the least happiness possible in any situation and to spread her discontent & unhappiness to everyone she comes in contact with. Serena and Xuela are unpleasant, dysfunctional ladies and, if I knew more about psychology, I might even call them sociopaths.

    • A twofer, Susan! I haven’t read Serena, and now (sorry, Ron) I may not. As for the Kincaid book, I think the author and Xuela take such tight control of things (there’s not one word of dialogue!) that the reader feels overwhelmed by the narrator’s lyrical but bitter, self-involved voice. Which makes her a perfect candidate for our elite gathering!

      • Susan

        Most in my book club found the book really interesting and there’s a mystery at the end apparently. I think I was the only one who never made it through the book. So there’s hope you can get through it, if you’d care to.

      • Louise Hawes

        I’ve taught with Ron, and liked some of his work. So I just may give it a try: who can resist a mystery?!

  8. I just finished Lisa Genova’s Still Alice.By the end, I did feel some sympathy for her, but she was so in-control, so tough on her youngest daughter, so this is my well conceived life, that she got on my nerves. Only when her Alzheimer’s really took hold, did she start to seem human. Makes me wonder about my own self and others. Why can’t we let down our guard and still be our best selves?

    • Haven’t read this, Barbara, though now I want to. I’ve known several people who made that sort of emotional about-face in the grip of Alzheimer’s. So we’ll invite the young and uptight Alice to our party!

  9. nina (N.A.) Nelson

    Oh, my goodness. Emma from EMMA drove me absolutely crazy! I adored, Pride and Prejudice and wondered why this book proved so hard for me to like. I’ve decided that the reason is because Emma was someone I truly didn’t relate to and thus didn’t root for at all. She was so stubborn in her belief that what she did was right while it was obviously so wrong, that I felt absolutely no loyalty or empathy for her at all. She seemed shallow and silly and oblivious, while Elizabeth Bennet—although stubborn as well, shared none of Emma’s other characteristics and would have hurt no one else but herself by her beliefs and actions. I’ll watch the movie and perhaps, I’ll understand Emma more in retrospect, but for now, I want to strangle her.

    • As I noted at the beginning of this post, I’m in the process of re-reading all of Austen. (Her novels are like classy beach books that I can’t stop devouring one after the other, and they’re keeping me up all night, making me groggy the next day.) And Nina, guess which one I just finished? EMMA! And yes, she IS pretty opinionated and willful, but she feels so badly each time she fouls things up, and she gets extra credit from me because she takes such good care of her (very) annoying father. Maybe we should invite both the Misses Bennet and Woodhouse to this party, and see who Emma tries to fix Elizabeth up with?! 🙂

      • Monica Roe

        Maybe Ned Nickerson? He might be getting tired of being Nancy’s vanilla-flavored arm candy…perhaps he’s ready to be incandescently in love with a nice Victorian spitfire? 🙂

      • louisehawes

        Yes! Elizabeth and a Ken doll — a match made in Hell…or at least at this Hellish party 🙂

  10. It’s been a long time since I read it, but Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss grated on me when I had to read that book for a lit class. She was so passive and put upon and I could not for the life of me understand why the instructor loved her so. Perhaps I need to re-read it. The same could be said for Tess of the D’Urbervilles. These heroines never struck me as being all that heroic–what’s heroic about being ground down and never resisting the process? I’d much rather have suggestible, naive Harriet Smith.

    • Yes, as I said above, you’re not alone in your feeling about Tess, Kathy! As for Maggie, I’m in the same boat you are — I don’t remember that one well enough to comment. I guess we should invite both Tess and Maggie — Nancy Drew could teach them a thing or two!!

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