Review: ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell

by Kim on October 17, 2011 · 18 comments

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Title: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Genre: Historical fiction
Year: 2010
Acquired: From the publisher as a giveaway at BEA
Rating: ★★½☆☆

One Sentence Summary: A devout clerk for a Dutch trading company goes to find his fortune in Japan so he can marry his wealthy fiancee, but has his plans thrown off course after a random meeting with young midwife-in-training.

One Sentence Review: The first part of this book was terribly boring, but things picked up about 175 pages in.

Why I Read It: I picked this book for my in-real-life book club in Madison to read because I’d heard a lot about David Mitchell and was curious to try one of his books.

Long Review: Jacob de Zoet is a deeply religious young man who goes to work for a Dutch trading company in 1799 in order to earn enough money to win the hand of his love back in Holland. The company sends him to Dejima, a corrupt and mismanaged trading post floating in Nagasaki Harbor in Japan. His plans are disrupted, however, after he happens to meet Orito Aibagawa, a young midwife of great renown that is struggling with her own physical disfigurement. Their possible relationship is derailed, however, in a single dangerous moment.

Although this book sounded like it would be quite awesome, I’m sorry to report that the first 175 pages bored the heck out of me. There was an amazing (and too short) introduction where we meet Orito for the first time, but then the book switches to Dutch trading and becomes drastically less engaging. If I hadn’t been reading it for book club, I probably would have given up. I’m interested in a lot of strange things, but I could just not muster up the caring to spend so long learning about the intricacies of Dutch trading with Japan.

However, other people in the club were less annoyingly bored with the first sections, so take all of that with a grain of salt.

I thought the book got a lot more interesting through the second and third sections, exploring a corrupt religious order and their treatment of Japanese women. It reminded be a bit of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood in the way it explored flawed and scary beliefs about female reproduction and fertility. I was way, way more engaged after that point, and found the latter-half of the book intriguing rather than boring.

So with that… I can’t quite say if I’d recommend it or not. Parts of the book were quite good, but it took a really long time to get there and I’m not sure if the time was worth it or not, at least for me. I’d probably suggest a different David Mitchell book over this one, if you’ve got the option, and save this one after you’re a fan of the author. I know I’m curious about reading Cloud Atlas, but it’s not one that got moved rapidly up the priority list.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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