Friday, May 1


It's been getting very strong reviews and had been highly recommended to me by friends (even the President is reading it). But I didn't like Netherland by Joseph O'Neill.

I had high hopes for the book after its brilliant opening scene -- a cricket match on Staten Island where the umpire (the supposedly Gatsby-esque
Chuck Ramkissoon) confronts a gun wielding player. But Netherland slowly lost my interest over the rest of its 250 pages. Nothing much happens. I feel like I have a pretty high tolerance for books (and music for that matter) where nothing much happens (for example, I like Joseph Heller's second novel, the ironically named Something Happened). But I was irritated this time.

Netherland is narrated in the first person by Hans van den Broek, a Dutch oil analyst living in New York. Although a lot of reviewers have compared it to The Great Gatsby, any "echoes" of Gatsby (as the New York Times put it) seemed pretty faint to me. The central story of the book is the breakup of Hans' marriage. The Chuck Ramkissoon character often seemed tacked onto the rest of the book. And many of the allusions to Gatsby, such as the manner of Chuck's death, seemed forced to me (I'm not giving away much here, the death is foreshadowed very early).

I also found that Hans' baroque narration did not fit with his very plain personality. I guess since O'Neill is a barrister who's also a novelist he finds it easy to imagine an oil analyst with such a flowery inner life - but I found it incongruous given Hans' behavior.

My biggest complaint with Netherland might be fairly unique to me - and could suggest a strength. After his wife leaves him, Hans' life in New York (that of a single, overworked somewhat isolated expatriot urban professional) was so much like my own that I found reading it to be excruciatingly mundane. One of the pleasures of reading a good novel is when it takes you inside a new and unfamiliar world. Netherland simply brought me back into my own world -- a world I wasn't particularly enjoying at the time (I read Netherland slowly because I was preparing for trial and had no free time to read other than my commute).

Perhaps other readers will find Hans' life interesting. I hope Obama enjoys it.


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