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!

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Steph October 17, 2011 at 11:06 am

You know, the first time I tried to read a David Mitchell novel it was for my bookclub (now defunct) and I barely made it 30 pages in. So even bookclubs are not enough impetus for me to read a book I’m not enjoying.

[For the sake of full disclosure, I will also add, however, that I did try that book again a few years later and wound up enjoying it a lot, so there is something to be said for trying books at a later date even if they didn't work for you at an earlier date.]

I have a friend who really loves David Mitchell and she said she hated this book. She thought the writing was embarrassingly bad, which I took as a huge red flag and have decided I probably won’t read this one (though I would like to read the rest of his back catalogue). Also, 175 pages is way too long for a book to hit its non-boring stride!

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Kim October 18, 2011 at 6:19 pm

If I hadn’t chosen the book, I probably would have given up on it (but yes, I agree with you about books being good at different times). I thought the writing was fine, nice even, it was just the subject matter that really didn’t seem to work for me.

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bermudaonion (Kathy) October 17, 2011 at 2:25 pm

I haven’t read this book, but I know what you mean. It sounds like it could have used a good edit.

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Kim October 18, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Maybe. I’m not quite sure what would have made this one work better.

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Trisha October 17, 2011 at 5:35 pm

I give you credit for lasting that long! I used to read books all the way through no matter what, but anymore I’m practically ADD with the suckers, tossing them aside if they don’t capture my interest almost immediately.

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Kim October 18, 2011 at 6:21 pm

I worry about coming ADD about books and not giving them a fair shot — I like a lot of books that get a little bit of a slow start. I am glad I read this one for the end, but the beginning was soooo long.

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Kailana October 17, 2011 at 6:44 pm

This book sounds interesting. It is too bad you didn’t like it better.

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Kim October 18, 2011 at 6:22 pm

I know! I was really excited about it.

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Leeswammes (Judith) October 18, 2011 at 2:44 am

Such a pity you didn’t enjoy this book! I enjoyed it a lot, but it helps that I’m Dutch, like Jacob de Zoet. Although really the book is about a European in Japan more than about his particular background I think.

My review is here: http://leeswammes.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/the-thousand-autumns-of-jacob-de-zoet-by-david-mitchell/

I don’t think it was badly written at all, I would say it’s very good. But it’s quite literary and that makes it a slow read.

I also went to an interview & signing by David Mitchell, and he told a lot more about the background. Just in case you can handle it! :-) http://leeswammes.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/david-mitchell-in-utrecht-interview-signing/

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Kim October 18, 2011 at 6:23 pm

I did think the writing was good, the plot just wasn’t working for me. Thanks for the links!

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Diane@BibliophileBytheSea October 18, 2011 at 5:01 am

I read this one and didn’t think it was an easy read. I liked the story, but it but didn’t flow well for me for some reason.

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Kim October 18, 2011 at 6:25 pm

I’m glad I’m not the only one that struggled a bit with this.

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Vasilly October 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm

This book sounds really interesting though the fact that the first part is terribly boring scares me. I’ll add this to my tbr list anyway.

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Kim October 18, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Maybe just skim the beginning until the good part?

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Joanna October 19, 2011 at 1:26 am

I absolutely loved everything else Mitchell has written but can’t get around to reading this one. Maybe because many people thought it was only ok.

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Kim October 20, 2011 at 6:30 pm

I liked the second part, but the first section just took sooo long. It was hard to get into the book.

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Greg Zimmerman October 19, 2011 at 1:48 pm

I’m with ya, Kim – I had high hopes for Jacob de Zoet, it being my first foray into David Mitchell. And while parts of it were dazzling, I was bored a lot of the time. Here was my review from last summer: http://www.thenewdorkreviewofbooks.com/2010/08/thousand-quite-vivid-but-not-always.html

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Kim October 20, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Oh good, I’m so glad I’m not the only one! The parts with Orito were so great, but other sections were just uninteresting.

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