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The Night Guest
by Fiona McFarlane

Consider this metaphor: growing old is like being the protagonist in one’s own mystery. Things start out on solid footing, but as events progress, a fog settles over your preconceptions. You start to question your memory of things but you also question the version of those around you. Perhaps you’ve misinterpreted something or are being misinterpreted. Who can you trust? Where can you turn?

The small, grainy author photo of Australian writer Fiona McFarlane had me guessing she was somewhere in her 20’s, but it turns out that Ms. McFarlane clocks in at the ripe old age of 36. That fact is notable only because this debut novel deals with the topic of aging in such wise and knowing terms, it seems hard to believe that its writer is 40 years younger than its protagonist.

So what we have here is an interesting idea—a crime story written from the perspective of its 75-year old victim—written with great empathy and understanding. But beyond that, I don’t know what to tell you. This was one of those books where I kept repeating, “I won’t know if I like it until the end.”

How do you decide whether or not you’re going to keep reading a book about which you feel ambivalent? I spent years (and years and years) following some now-bewildering code of diligence in which any book I began to read I would finish, whether or not I was actually enjoying it. I’d love to think that this vigilance was the sign of a serious mind that wanted to embrace every challenge or figure out the value in any work, but frankly, I fear I was asleep at the wheel half the time.

I really hate to admit this, but up until probably just a few years ago, I carried around this idea that if enough other people (particularly people with some credibility) liked a book, then either I should too, or, at the very least, said book deserved a complete read, because who was I with my subjective thinking to deem someone else’s work uninteresting?

I can’t identify exactly when I finally figured out that applying a Protestant work ethic to the act of reading was as joyless as a Puritan at prom, but I can pinpoint one moment that stuck with me. I happened to be looking through one of my favorite catalogs, Levenger, (fancy office supplies for reader types) and stumbled upon a quote from its founder that went something like this: “If you’re not putting down at least 20% of the books you read before you finish them, you’re not challenging yourself enough.” Now you might say, “But T, you were challenging yourself. You were reading all those books you didn’t like.” Well, here’s the cold, hard truth, friends. Those books I didn’t like? Half the time I think I’d just start zoning out and wasn’t even paying attention. I was just completing the task at hand. What a waste!

So thanks in part to the CEO of Levenger, I’ve become a lot more intentional about my reading selections. And while The Night Guest certainly passed my newly imposed 50-page test and was worth the read, know that if you choose to pick it up, much like its slightly confused protagonist, you won’t be sure how you feel until the end.

Up Next: The new Murakami!

Read 5 comments


  2. I’m a lot like you in my approach to reading. I’ve finished just about every book I’ve ever read. My first failure- The Sound and the Fury. I just couldn’t do it. But I’ve really only rarely put any down since. In fact, I can’t think of any. I do always thing of something (paraphrased here) that her dad I believe told her- you’ll never have time to read all the books ever written, so don’t waste your time on the ones you don’t want to read.

  3. Henry has been shorn like a baby lamb. So don’t be comparing your daughter to our dog as if they’re both a big hot mess.

    On a lighter note, I did know that T slogged through every book, while I quit books after less than 20 pages when I see a brighter shiny object flit by my head. I am not proud of that, although now I appear to be a visionary.

    Can’t wait to hear about Murakami. I’m hoping to read that after her.

  4. I like this post! And, am shocked that I never knew this about you. I mean, I think I knew you finished every book you started. I just figured you found some value in all of them. Refreshing! And, on a side note, Hattie is looking a lot like her cousin Henry these days!

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