Were My Expectations Too High?

There are some books that come highly recommended, are reasonably well-written, have an intriguing premise, are enjoyable to read… and yet they still fail to quite live up to my expectations. This could be because my expectations for them are simply unrealistic. Or it could be that dreaded statement (which annoys all authors) ‘it’s not quite how I would have written the story’. Anyway, here are some recent reads that were slightly off-the-mark for me, but which others may find much more to their taste.

lecercleBernard Minier: The Circle (Le Cercle)

I loved the claustrophobic wintry atmosphere of Minier’s first novel The Frozen Dead, although the serial killer locked in an asylum trope did seem a little unoriginal. So I was looking forward to this second novel – perhaps too much so. With a sinking heart, I discovered this book started with a prologue about a woman imprisoned in a cell and abused by her captor and was even more dismayed to discover that the spectre of the serial killer from book 1 (the sinister and far-too-clever Julian Hirtmann) makes a reappearance. It just stretched my suspension of disbelief a little bit too far, and there were many moments (such as the holiday of gendarme Irene in Santorini) that seemed to be mere filling, serving no purpose whatsoever. I suppose it was done to give more depth to the characters, but it just added bulk to the book. The characters of the investigators, I felt, were already fairly well-defined and rounded. Some of the secondary characters, however, were mere archetypes and there were simply too many investigations going on simultaneously.

To be fair, there were many things I did enjoy about the book. The season is early summer and it’s thunderstorms rather than avalanches which threaten the closed-in valleys of the Pyrenees. The setting is a quiet university town called Marsac, the so-called Cambridge of the south-west of France (there is a real Marsac not far from there, but this one appears to be imaginary). The character of the main investigator, Martin Servaz, and his relationship with his teenage daughter Margot; the no-nonsense Chinese-Franco-Moroccan sidekick Samira Cheung; the crime scene with the dolls floating face-up in the swimming pool; the brooding forest on the outskirts of town; the backdrop of the 2010 Football World Cup and France’s dismal performance in it… all of these were vividly described and memorable.

I read this in French, but Minotaur Books has the translation coming out on 27th of October, but I have been unable to find out the name of the translator. Maybe Alison Anderson, who also translated the first in the series.

AssassinsRichard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

Try transposing Jesus’s death and the ulterior fate of his disciples into the present-day. Arm your protagonists with mobile phones, GPS tracking, airplanes and weapons, yet describe a world of gladiators, Roman Empire bureaucracy, simple folk clad in traditional garb. Give it a sceptical but increasingly confused ‘detective’ in the shape of Gallio to track down the remaining disciples and disprove the rumours about Christ’s resurrection. And there you have it: a strange mash-up of ideas and time periods, which raises interesting questions about how to contain a new religion or ideology, predestination and interpretation of events or people’s words.

I really liked the concept and the first half or so of the book felt fresh, different and very funny (whilst also being sad at the same time). However, I felt the ‘joke’ dragged on after a while. I did like the ending, but there was a bit of a sag in the middle, although the ambiguous character of Paul (whom I’ve never felt much traction with) somewhat redeemed matters.

For a more enthusiastic review of this book (which has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction), see here and here. As for me, when it comes to a book blending religion, history and political satire, I prefer The Master and Margarita.




19 thoughts on “Were My Expectations Too High?”

  1. Sometimes having high expectations means inevitable disappointment – I’ve done it myself with books I’m convinced I’m going to enjoy. I just always remind myself that we can’t all like the same things!

      1. I had a similar experience fairly recently with In Love by Alfred Hayes. Another of his novels — My Face for the World to See — is one of my favourite books, but the other one just didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I still can’t decide whether my expectations were too high…

  2. I know just what you mean about high expectations, Marina Sofia. I’ve been disappointed like that, too. As to these two, to be frank, they don’t sound like quite my cuppa, so I would likely have been disappointed, too…

    1. I like trying out new things, even if they don’t always live up to expectations. But I suppose I’m a little tired of kidnapping and serial killer tropes…

  3. I often find myself underwhelmed by hyped books. I think this is partly because the marketing push has been such that I’ve built up the expectation too much. I’ve got Acts of the Assassins to read. Not sure when I’ll get to it though 🙂

    1. This one came with word-of-mouth recommendations by people whose opinion I trust. And at the beginning I was wowed by it, but then my pleasure slowly diminished (the ending was strong though). We are all different, I guess, and we all ‘forgive’ different things in a book.

  4. Both descriptions were a complete turn off for me. I hate books where some victim is locked up and subject to abuse. Somehow I feel a party to it and feel compelled to read the book quickly so that she’ll either be rescued or the torture will end (either way). Not my kind of crime read as it teeters on voyeurism. As for the other one… sounds silly

  5. I don’t think there is anything worse for a reader than to find that a book you have been looking forward to fails to meet your expectations. I constantly find myself wondering if somehow I have failed the book and not read it with the attention it deserved, but I suspect from what you say about these I would have been disappointed too.

    1. Yes, I ask myself that too. Perhaps if I’d been in a different mood or had come to the book ‘cold’… But I also think I should grow up and not expect to fall in love with every book I read.

  6. What a pity. I really liked the sound of Acts of the Assassins when I read Grant’s review, but now I’m not so sure! The Bulgakov has been in the ‘to read’ pile for longer than I care to remember so I guess I ought to try that one first. 🙂

    1. I loved the first few chapters of Acts of the Assassins, entering that zany made-up world, which still made perfect sense on some level. I admired the cleverness and humour, but after a while I found myself looking forward to going back to it less and less. No comparison to Bulgakov – that one is completely insane, yet well controlled and perfect for its context (written under censorship etc.)

  7. Expectations can be problematic indeed. I often find myself rating a book I knew nothing about going in higher than a book I was looking forward to that didn’t quite meet my expectations, and then realising later that actually the high expectations book was the better of the two. It’s the delight of an unexpected find that can make a book seem ‘better’ than it actually is.

    1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: sometimes I am being unfair to those books for which I had such great expectations. And I don’t mean the hyped ones necessarily (there’s a bit of reverse psychology going on there or perhaps just snobbery).

  8. You are just being honest with your reviews ~ Sometimes we are disappointed, sometimes we are pleasantly surprised~ The plot of the second one looks interesting though ~ I am checking out your links ~

    1. In the meantime he’s written two more books in French, one continues the Martin Servaz saga, the other is set in Seattle. I’ll probably give him another go, but there was just too much confusion and improbability in this one.

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