Posted by: Sally Ingraham | March 26, 2011

Conversation in The Cathedral

convo in the cathedralI’m not giving up, I’m not surrendering, and I’m not admitting to defeat. But I’m absolutely choosing to not finish this book. I have taken pride in the fact that since The Wolves inception about a year ago, no matter how busy I have been, or how difficult the read has been, I have always finished the pick of the month. They say that pride comes before a fall, so I suppose that I have tripped and gone sprawling over this 600+ page tome. However, I feel more like I’ve finally gotten the tethers on my hot air balloon untangled and untied and I’m floating off into the sky, light and lovely and free…

I made it about 230 pages into Conversation in The Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa – far enough to feel like if I was going to get into the swing of things I should have managed it by then. The narrative, mostly composed of multi-character conversations, often with several entirely separate conversations twined around and through each other, is the type of stylistic writing that I expected to enjoy. This time it drove me nuts, and I grew increasingly frustrated at my inability to differentiate between various characters (many who seemed to have more than one name…) Something just did not click for me, even though I WANTED to like the book.

And I didn’t exactly dislike it. I can appreciate that Richard (whose pick it was) found the layers of conversation intoxicating, and that Emily found the story to be rich and thought-provoking. (Still waiting to hear from the other members of The Wolves.) Judging from what I read, the complex revelation of the moral and economic decline of the characters that populate Vargas Llosa’s Peru, and Peru itself, probably makes for a compelling tale, and one told in a fascinating style. It just did not work for me at this time. Who knows? Maybe I’ll return to it later in life and it will blow my socks off.

For the moment though I am happily moving on to other stories, content to leave Santiago and Ambrosio (and all the rest of them) to their warm beer and cigarette butts…

I’m looking forward to April’s read – Paul Glennon’s The Dodecahedron, or Frames for a Frame. Since I’m the one who picked it I’m crossing all my fingers in hopes that everyone will like it, including me! Discussion will begin on the last weekend of the month.


  1. Sorry again that this didn’t work out for you, Sarah, but I think you gave it more than enough of a fair chance to click with you. No need to slog on if it wasn’t paying dividends for you. Vargas Llosa was pushing the envelope here, and I’m sure you won’t be the first nor the last to react to his narrative experiment with disappointment. For what it’s worth, though, I do think that the style and the various plotlines become easier to make sense of as the novel progresses. In any event, better luck next time, my friend!

    • And I really am aiming for a ‘next time’ with this book, since I believe that given a different month/year, and perhaps a bit more energy on my part, I would have better success with Conversation in The Cathedral. I’m convinced that it is worth it, and I can definitely appreciate the coolness of the narrative experimentation – I just couldn’t wrap my head around it right now. Better luck next time indeed!

  2. I found Richards review quite intriguing but can really see how this would not work at the wrong moment. At least it wouldn’t for me. I will keep it in mind for later though. Lucky it wasn’t your choice or you would have felt forced to finish it.

    • One should never feel forced to finish a book read for pleasure – a concept that I am still struggling with! On the one hand it feels totally brilliant to set this one aside, but on the other hand I am quite disappointed that it didn’t work for me. Richard, Emily, and Frances all wrote compelling and excited reviews of it. Oh well.

  3. I hear where you’re coming from, Sarah. Although the book did start to click for me after the first 50 pages or so, what you describe here is pretty much my experience of those initial chapters. And I love your hot air balloon metaphor. It can feel so freeing to give yourself permission to abandon a book that’s just not working for you. Just ordered my copy of the Glennon today, and looking forward to it!

    • I’m still relishing that freedom – it almost makes up for how bummed I feel about not getting into the book. I had really high hopes, based on how much I liked Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Can’t like them all I guess. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the Glennon too. 🙂

  4. […] and the second (and then of course the third) volume(s) of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow. Conversation was the March pick for The Wolves, and I just couldn’t find my way in it at the time. I want […]

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