‘I can tell from the cover that that’s not your type of book. Why are you reading it?’ was my brother’s (potentially rhetorical) question when he saw my book of choice on a recent flight. That’s precisely what I’d been asking myself, to be honest, albeit not out loud.
I’d heard many reviewers and trusted writer–reader friends breathlessly recommend Lev Grossman’s New York Times bestseller The Magicians as the best. book. ever. written. in. the. history. of. humankind (or sentiments to that effect). And when people—as in more than one person—give a book such glowing recommendations, I’m inclined to listen.
Let me say up front that The Magicians is incredibly, exquisitely clever. That Grossman has a turn of phrase that has you concurrently in envy and in awe. I appreciated his and the book’s genius and really, truly enjoyed it in parts. But as a non-fiction reader, I never quite lost the arms-length inquisitive observation of the book—I never quite stopped regarding it as an interesting scientific experiment from afar.
Quentin Coldwater is the bitter-genius third wheel in an unrequited love triangle when his life takes a completely surprising turn: he arrives for his interview to enter Princeton only to find his interviewer dead.
Fast-forward past that early-chapter, hero’s-journey-convenient catalyst and Quentin finds himself admitted to a secretive school of magic so mysterious no one quite ever seems to know what’s going on. Including (and especially) me, the reader.
Perhaps what frustrated me is that I never felt as though I knew where The Magicians was going. The parts that Grossman seemed to initially position front and centre (and that he spent an apparent eternity setting up), were then discarded at not looked back upon.
Two examples of that, which drove me mental, were: the initial friendship-slash-love-triangle, which bored me senseless in the opening pages and then got dropped, never to really return; and the years Quentin spent at the school, which seemed to get glossed over. He went from relentlessly exploring every nook and cranny of the campus before the semester to started to pretty much jumping years and graduating. Huh?
Where is this book heading? I kept asking myself. What’s the point? Having finished it and realised that (spoiler alert), it’s heading on to at the very least a sequel, I still don’t really know the answer to either question. And I’m not sure I want to.
The Magicians felt as though it were reaching for The Secret History meets Harry Potter territory. Sadly, I didn’t feel as though it reached either. In isolation, the ideas and the magic Grossman devised were brilliant, but instead of being drawn into the book, I felt as though I was observing the story and the interactions with a—if this at all makes sense to you—stiff upper lip of English bemusement from afar.
‘Jolly clever, old chap’ is the brusque, generic compliment that springs to my mind about this book. It was an all-consuming tale of British boarding school and camaraderie (even though it was set in the US), but it was only all-consuming for the characters, if you like. Me? I could never quite suspend disbelief, and instead found myself flicking ahead to find out the precise number of pages in the book and doing the math on how much reading I had left.
It might be because, as my brother voiced what I’d been thinking, I could tell even from the cover and the very first sentence of the very first page that it wasn’t my type of book, but I missed the magic. I loved The Secret History and Harry Potter as standalone titles, but the combination of the ideas didn’t work, for me at least, with The Magicians. The questions remain: If everyone else loved it, why didn’t I? Is it as simple as it not being my type?