Generally, I will give a book until the halfway point to hold my interest. If, at that time, it doesn't, then I seriously consider walking away. So it's never a good sign when I start doing the math to figure out exactly where the halfway point is. That point came for this book around page 80 (out of 469, for the record). Ultimately, I did decide to stick with it, but it never really captivated me.
Initially, I felt it read a bit like a poor man's Shogun
, with your white European man trying to make his way in uber-foreign Shogunal Japan, complete with unattainable love interest despite someone at home. But where Shogun
was captivating almost from the get-go, this one just got so bogged down in the clerical details of trading in Japan. Sure, the main character is a clerk, but that doesn't mean that his day-to-day job is interesting enough to want to read about it. But yeah. There were just so many minute details about trade, company politics, Japanese politics, and world politics that the real, personal stories suffered for it.
Furthermore, I would expect someone who has received as much praise as David Mitchell has to be able to construct a cohesive story that flows together, even if it involves a number of basically discrete plotlines. Not so much. The first part was an introduction of sorts, where we meet all the characters and are bored by the mundane details of their daily lives. The second part was almost an entirely different story, with Orito being abducted and imprisoned, and the efforts to free her. The next part - without really resolving that second - deals mainly with the British efforts to take over the Dutch interests in Japan. Then there were a few concluding parts, but those are the main three, and they read like three separate stories, that just happened to have a few intersecting characters. The first one ends on a sort of cliffhanger that actually held promise for the interest factor of the book. The second part actually did interest me, but was more or less abandoned without any satisfactory conclusion. Then the third part bored me even more than the first part, and also didn't end very satisfactorily. There was kind of a deus ex machina resolution that was never explained. Maybe if I were to investigate British/Japanese/Dutch history of the time I'd get a clue, but as it was, nothing. Then we got kind of a resolution for the plot from part 2, but it was very afterthought-ish, as was the rest of the conclusion, with jumps forward in time to sort of tie up the loose ends. It just felt more like he felt he had to tie up those ends than like an actual, considered conclusion.
As for the romantic plot, it did not work for me at all. Going back to Shogun
again, there was a romantic plot there too, with Blackthorne and Mariko, and it was very convincing and poignant. You could see how the feelings developed, even though there was no hope for them, as she was already married. As I recall, there was never even any impropriety in their relationship (I'm not sure they even so much as directly acknowledged their feelings out loud), but the feelings were there, and you really felt for them. With Jacob and Orito, the whole thing is basically incomprehensible to me. They meet by chance one day, and he pretty much instantly becomes smitten. For life. For no particular reason. I mean, yes, she's a pretty formidable woman. It's impressive for a woman anywhere at that time to be studying medicine, let alone somewhere as steeped in strict traditions and gender roles as 18th-century Japan. But they spoke - about trivial things - for barely a few moments. How is that enough to inspire a lifetime of devotion? To Mitchell's credit, those feelings were basically unrequited, which is realistic enough, but I still just didn't get them at all. And since that "relationship" is really the only common thread throughout the whole book, I feel that it should have been more powerful, made more sense. The fact that it was as flat and incomprehensible as it was just made the book that much more disappointing for me.
So ultimately, this book did not succeed for me. There seem to be quite a few people who disagree with me, but, well, they're welcome to it. It didn't do it for me.