The Sense of an Ending: A disappointing book

There is always a certain amount of expectation when you read an award-winning book – you know that although a little subjectivity is bound to come into the decision, the book which wins must surely win for a good reason. My personal reactions to award winning books has varied – I loved The English Patient and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, winners of the Man Booker Prize and Commonwealth Writers Prize, respectively, while I found Midnight’s Children (winner of the Booker of Bookers) to be good, and intriguing, but far from a favourite book for me.

With an overall fairly positive response to award winning books, though, I came to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, with a certain amount of expectation. Silly me. I should know better than to raise my hopes before reading a book, or watching a film, or hearing an album. Only in rare events do I do this, and normally then it turns out to be warranted.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate this book. I just didn’t love it, either. I am disappointed, to be honest. The short, 150 page novel (or is this a novella? It sits in that awkward space in between the two, it seems, but this is unimportant) is split into two parts. The first, shorter part, focuses on Tony Webster’s young life – his education, his first girlfriend Veronica, his tight circle of friends and how they all let newcomer Adrian, who seems more serious and intelligent, into their lives. By the end of this first part, despite what happens, it’s clear they almost idolise Adrian. The second part skips forward several decades, to when Tony is now retired, has had a career and a marriage which ended in divorce, and he is no longer in contact with the characters from earlier in the book. His memory is of a calm life, never trying to hurt anybody, never having any real effect on anybody’s life, until a letter from his past causes him to question the life he has constructed in his own mind.

It is an okay premise for a story, with some interesting pondering on how we construct our own truths from our memories, and how accurate these internal biographies might be, but the book had some flaws. The writing overall wasn’t amazing – not bad, but there wasn’t any moments I found myself swept away by the language style. However, this isn’t always important -I have loved some books with similarly average writing. What disappointed me with this story was the fact that at times it seemed to lack direction, and more than just in plot – it felt like I was constantly guessing what kind of story it was, whether or not it was a “whodunnit” as the back of the book suggests, or a romance story, or who knows what else. And when I finally got to the end of the book, after all of the unpredictability, I found a twist about ten pages from the end to be amazingly poignant and powerful, only to have another twist in the final couple of pages, which was entirely unnecessary and pointless, completely ruin the ending. My reaction to finishing the book involved putting it down, shaking my head, and mumbling “what the hell was that” to myself.

I’m not saying this is a bad book. It was just disappointing, and I don’t really understand why it won an award – the insights into life and memory are interesting, but far from profound or new. The writing is not sensational. The story itself is odd and ultimately pointless. The characters are developed in interesting ways, and perhaps this is the one aspect keeping this book together, but on the whole The Sense of an Ending did not blow me away.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it, if so? Do you think it deserved to win this award?

24 thoughts on “The Sense of an Ending: A disappointing book

  1. Hmm, isn’t it funny, the fact that you have given this a rather downbeat review has made me want to read it 🙂 I guess that just goes to prove that no publicity is bad publicity. Thanks for this – and for the conundrum you have left me with – to read it or not to read it that is the question 🙂 I have just started on a Jeeves and Wooster so I don’t have to decide for the next day or so. Maybe on day you can review one of mine. I would be happy to send you a copy.

    • That is funny – I guess sometimes I read books knowing I probably won’t like them, too. But there has to be some other reason to read it – a sense of duty, or something of the like. This one drew me in but for all the wrong reasons!

  2. It is an unfortunately frequent phenomenon, isn’t it, that books and movies than often are highly awarded turn out to be less than worthy of them. It makes one wonder what it was that appealed to the panel of judges in the first place!

    For instance, I’d begun reading Midnight’s Children a while ago with much anticipation but, am not proud to say, haven’t gotten around to finishing it yet. As for some decisions like White Tiger, I just wonder if it isn’t because some books just pander to accepted stereotypes. :-/

    • Good point – I absolutely agree that I think the award winning books follow a certain unspoken formula or structure. They’re always the kind of books they try and ram down your throat at university “to make you a better reader and writer”, which often couldn’t be further from the truth. I read an article a while ago about how comedy never does overly well and never wins awards – it’s always intellectual, serious books which win. The article went on to say that the novel is no longer novel, no longer daring and actually clever – the books that win awards are almost predictably boring. I think it was a good point. 🙂

  3. I read a synopsis and decided to read the book. A day later I wondered why I bothered. The storyline was good, often as we get older we reflect on parts of our lives, share regrets & those times enjoyed, yet this book didn’t grab me & like you I finished the book wondered what I had missed, and wondered how it had managed to win the Man Booker Prize. I am still wondering.

    • I agree, I think the idea behind the book was good, and I had my hopes up while reading it that it was going to go somewhere really special, but it just didn’t. I think it managed to win the Man Booker Prize because it somehow kept up the illusion of being profound and intellectual and philosophical, when really it was rehashing ideas I have seen elsewhere. Disappointing.

  4. Enjoyed your review – not sure i’ll be picking up this book anytime soon.
    I’ve got to read Midnight’s Children as part of my challenge and i’m really not looking forward to it – some of my friends have said that it is one of the few books that they haven’t been able to finish. I think you are right though – when a book comes with a high amount of expectation, it is often disappointing. This is what I found with the Time Traveller’s Wife the first time I read it. Then I re-read and realised that my initial view had been clouded with almost trying to disprove all the hype.
    Captain Correlli’s Mandolin is one of my all time favourite books – very few books have had such a lasting impact on me.
    Life of Pi, I also enjoyed, and the Handmaid’s Tale (both award winning novels), but the difference with these was that I picked them up because I liked the sound of them, not because of the hype surrounding them.
    Sorry for the long winded comment haha.

    • I didn’t hate Midnight’s Children – it did take me a long time to finish though, but it was okay. Wouldn’t read it again though. If you have time, read up on some of the history the book is set against, particularly the political history – I think if I had have known the context better I might have enjoyed it more.
      I feel the same about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – I read it during my writing/reading rebirth a few years ago, and went on to read everything else by de Bernieres as well! I haven’t read Life of Pi or Handmaid’s Tale yet, though I intend to read both eventually.
      No need to apologise for the long comment – I always enjoy reading long comments, it’s nice to talk to people who have a lot to say on the subjects! 🙂

  5. I think I actually avoid books that win awards, especially literary ones because I have a different subjective taste than many judges. Maybe it’s a mistake, and I’m missing out on some great stuff, but I’ve found with great books, like Captain Correlli, they stick in people’s minds long after award season and for me to eventually discover them, recommended by a friend or a blog, or just picked up at the library after hearing their name enough times to get curious.

    • That is a very good point – I find myself much more taken with books that people discuss on blogs or books I just hear in general conversation, than books that win these awards. I think the judges look for a particular something which very often doesn’t appeal to the broad spectrum of the reading public. Then again, some things that do appeal to the broad spectrum, such as Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, horrify me even more. I guess you have to find the balance, hahaha.

  6. Like the commenter before me, I’m always wary of books that receive awards, since it’s so subjective, isn’t it? I go for a story that makes me love the characters (as flawed as they may be) and want to root for them as they mess up. Doesn’t sound like that happens in The Sense of an Ending. Thanks for the review.

    • That’s absolutely right – I think great characters always make a great book (something I try to keep in mind when I write my own stories). My favourite books always have incredibly memorable characters, characters who you actually feel emotions towards even though you know they’re not real.

  7. I like to look at the long lists to learn about books that I may not have heard about, but once they start to narrow them down, they often don’t match what I like. Some of my favourite books have come from longlists, this one I haven’t read, it feels a little too ordinary and there’s too much else enticing me on the shelf right now, but always enjoy other perspectives on award winners.

    • Ahhh, that’s an interesting strategy actually, I had never thought of that! I might have to do the same.
      Yeah, I think this book was too ordinary, and on further reflection something else has occurred to me – it tries too hard to be intellectual, and instead comes across as wildly pretentious. I definitely wouldn’t invest time in it if you have a lot of other books you want to read. 😛

  8. I’m sorry you were so disappointed in The Sense of an Ending. I usually don’t pay a lot of attention to what the critics say, or the hype attributed to awards. I value the opinions of friends who I know have similar tastes in books and movies. Often if a critic pans a book or movie, I quite like it, but often dislike the books/movies critics rave about. I recently read a couple of blogs about the literary award process and it was a bit of an eye-opener. Ramblings (http://chichikir.wordpress.com) wrote Behind The Scenes part 1 & 2 on June 7th & 8th respectively, presenting the opinions of Irving Wallace who served as a judge for the Nobel Prize committee. It was quite enlightening. She wrote about the prejudices of the time and personal opinions about certain authors that played a big part in choosing certain people to be eligible to win the award. It just goes to prove that it isn’t necessarily what you know or say, it’s who you know or who you say it to.

    • Ahhh, that is a really good point! We tend to kid ourselves into thinking that these books win or even become eligible to win based entirely on their literary merit and so on and so forth, when really there is probably so much more to it than that! Which just gives us more reason not to focus entirely on what the judges and critics say about books – ultimately our own instinct and intuition is probably the best indicator of whether or not we are going to like a book. 🙂

      • Exactly! On the other hand, I’d like to think that the local literary community actually liked my first book when they nominated it for several awards. I didn’t win any of them but it did feel good to be nominated! I really don’t know who was responsible for suggesting it. Perhaps it was only one of a few that came out that year that met certain qualifications.I really don’t know how the process works. I suppose every committee is different, but I can see how some nepotism could occur if not policed properly. 🙂

        • Oh definitely, it is still awesome if you were nominated for awards! And not all literary awards are bad, many of them are great and awarded to great books. I definitely think the Man Booker tends to steer away from books people actually enjoy, though.

  9. Ugh gosh I just purchased this book a couple weeks ago, just about to get around to reading it, but now i’m not sure if I should!! Thanks for the post… very nice work!

    • Well, I say read it anyway! Sometimes it’s good to read books even when we know we might not enjoy them! As I said, this book isn’t terrible, it’s just not great – not worthy of the award it won, at any rate. Some interesting ideas in it though I guess.

  10. Oh no! This is on my TBR list!! But I think that sometimes you have to read these sorts of books a couple of times before you can actually get anything from reading them. Having said that, I think that we are doomed from from the moment we pick up the book and judge it by it’s cover – we are expecting something amazing and out of this world, simply because the book has a little sticker on the cover that says “Hey!! Buy me because I won an award!”. Some of my favourite books haven’t won any amazing literary prizes and I will still pick them and recommend them to more people, over the books that have fancy stickers on the cover or are surrounded by hype.

    • Oh no! I have heard some people mention that this book is worth re-reading actually, but I just didn’t care enough for it, or hate it enough, to warrant the re-read, as there’s too many other books I want to read now instead. But yes, you’re right – we do go into certain books with expectations which are likely to end up causing our disappointment. This was perhaps one of those cases. I generally am more likely to be impressed by books people have recommended to me, real people, like friends and other bloggers. 🙂

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