January 11, 2011
Italy Reading Challenge 2011: The English Patient
My first book of the Italy Reading Challenge 2011 was a re-read of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient - which, despite the title, is actually set in an Italian villa. I first read it six years ago (holy cow! I feel old!) in an undergraduate literature course which consisted entirely of works by Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. To this day, it remains one of the most memorable classes I ever took in college; I loved everything we read, every class discussion, and every paper. So I was excited to re-read this novel with a new perspective.
However, I found The English Patient far less engaging than I did in college, and it took me awhile to figure out why. But finally, I understood. While The English Patient is not a mystery novel in the genre sense, there is a lot of concealment. There are twists, hidden identities, and all sorts of other intrigues. Part of what drew me in back in college was the mystery behind the title character, as well as all the others holed up with him in the villa. Going back to re-read it, there was really no mystery. I knew everything that was going to happen, everything about all the characters - I will never be able to reclaim the feelings I had during that first read, because they were based so much on the discovery process.
Which is not to say that The English Patient is boring the second time around. Ondaatje writes some of the most elegant prose I have ever encountered. I enjoyed being swept up in his writing style. And as I continue to work through a breakup, I found the title character's meditation's on heartbreak to be far more poignant and relevant than they were back when I was an undergrad. Ondaatje can write about lost love without being sentimental or ridiculous; his words ring perfectly true, especially now that I have experienced it firsthand.
Italy, however, is more of a backdrop in this novel than anything else. We see a lot of countryside, but little local color. I'm hoping the next book I pick really gives me a sense of the country as well as narrative.