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The Sunday Salon: Rabbit, Run

The Sunday Salon.comI just finished reading Rabbit, Run by John Updike for my book club meeting tomorrow. I’m not sure exactly what I think of it, but I wanted to get some of my own thoughts down before the meeting. I apologize for the randomness and stream-of-consciousness of the entry, I’m sort of write-thinking at the moment.

The main character of Rabbit, Run is 26-year-old Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high school basketball star who now has a job selling kitchen appliances. Within the first few pages of the book, Harry runs away from his pregnant wife, Janice, and two-year-old son Nelson. He has a short affair with a woman named Ruth, but then returns to Janice the night she goes into labor. There’s more, but I don’t want to go into it because of spoilers and what not.

rabbit runThis book was different from what I’ve been reading lately for a lot of reasons, but the biggest one has to be that I didn’t like the main character at all. Harry is well-drawn out, believable, and well-written, but as a person I didn’t like him. I didn’t like his choices, I didn’t like his justifications for his actions, I didn’t even feel sympathetic for him.

I have give Updike credit for that — Harry is just about all-around unlikeable, but in a totally convincing way. He’s not a caricature of a bad person, he just has the exact selfish and self-absorbed personality that I find repugnant. But Updike did such a good job of drawing Harry out and telling a good story that I actually liked the book.

That seems so weird to me, given how much character has played a role in the books I’ve read lately. I’ve been reading a lot of books with characters I like or find interesting. Harry is just a jerk, but the book does such a good job of getting inside his head and inside the heads of all the other characters that I got drawn in. It was a really good book.

I’m curious what everyone at the book club will say tomorrow. I think whether someone likes the book or not will depend a lot on whether they can separate Harry from the story and the writing. If you can’t distance the too, then I think it would be hard to enjoy the book because he’s just such a  unlikeable person, at least for me.

Have you ever read a book that you liked despite disliking the main character(s)? Which book, and why do you think you still liked it?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • charley June 14, 2009, 8:52 pm

    I wouldn’t say I liked Independent People by Halldor Laxness, but I felt compelled to read on, even though I didn’t like the protagonist. I think I kept reading because Bjartur was so set in his ways – I find characters who are so sure of themselves fascinating, even if I don’t like them.

  • softdrink June 14, 2009, 10:36 pm

    Yes, Who By Fire. The characters were quite irritating and made idiotic decisions. But, the story was different and I still wanted to know what happened and I liked the author’s style.

  • rebeccareid June 15, 2009, 6:35 am

    I think I often read books that I love but which have characters I dislike. The very long book I’m reading now (The Forsyte Saga) is somewhat like that. It’s about the setting and description of the characters, not necessarily the characters themselves that compel me to finish.

    Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

  • bermudaonion June 15, 2009, 9:08 am

    I’ve been wanting to read one of the Rabbit books. I’m really curious after reading this post.

  • JoAnn June 15, 2009, 9:19 am

    I think some readers have a hard time separating liking a character from enjoying a book. My book club probably wouldn’t give this rave reviews, but I think your reaction really says something about Updike’s writing. I had this experience with Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica.

  • Steph June 15, 2009, 10:28 am

    This is the second less than positive review I’ve read of this book, and it makes me glad that I’ve never read it! I can deal with unlikable “protagonists”, but this novel just really sounds like it’s not for me.

    One book that I read and liked despite characters who were terrible people was Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections”. Everyone in that book is severely flawed and some of the people are quite hateful, but they were all believable and the writing was so impressive, that I respected what Franzen had done immensely. I realized that there was no way his characters could have gotten under my skin so much if he hadn’t drawn them so perfectly! You really felt they were all real people that you might actually know (or conceivably could).

  • Amanda June 21, 2009, 12:09 pm

    Updike is one author I’ve always been too intimidated to read.