Larry H's Reviews > A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
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If you read as much as I do (or even if you don't), you're bound to come across a book that is hailed by literary critics and readers as one of the greatest things ever, but no matter how much you try and read it and are determined to love it, it just doesn't click for you. I know that happens most often with the classics, but it certainly happens with "regular" fiction and nonfiction as well.

Anthony Marra's debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is such a book for me. Reviews have hailed it as everything from "brilliant" and "haunting" to "a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles." One reviewer even said this book "restores my faith in the future of the novel all over again."

One day, in a snowy village in war-torn Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides as Russian soldiers abduct her father, Dokka, in the middle of the night. Their kindly neighbor, Akhmed, fears the worst when he sees the soldiers setting fire to Dokka's house as they take him away, but he rescues Havaa from her hiding place. Fearing she will be discovered, Akhmed takes Havaa to the local hospital, abandoned but for one doctor, Sonja, who alone (with the help of one cantankerous nurse) has been treating all of the victims of war and illness that enter the dilapidated hospital's doors. Akhmed, who was a medical student at the very bottom of his class, promises to work as a doctor with Sonja to ensure Havaa is provided for.

Sonja comes with her own set of issues, most notably her sister, Natasha, who has continuously disappeared and reappeared in Sonja's life, but has been missing for some time. And Akhmed is caring for his own bedridden wife, and worrying about his neighbor and childhood friend, who is an informant for the Russians. But Sonja and Akhmed forge a reluctant partnership, one which opens both of their eyes to the surprising connections that tie them together.

For me, while there's no doubt that Marra is a tremendously talented writer who has created some memorable characters and some beautiful sentences, this book just didn't click the way I hoped it would. It's a very dense story—in order to give gravity to his narrative, Marra packs a great deal of Chechen history and details that seemed to run on for far too long. The book takes place over a 10-year-period, and switches perspectives frequently and abruptly. And although he weaves all of his storylines together at the end, before that point I wondered why he spent so much time dwelling on certain details about secondary characters.

I'm not usually an outlier in this fashion; I usually like books more than others. So if the story and people's reviews make this book sound like one you think you'd love, have at it. And then perhaps we can discuss what I'm missing.
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Reading Progress

May 12, 2013 – Started Reading
May 12, 2013 – Shelved
May 19, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-28 of 28 (28 new)

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Janet And here I thought it was only me.

Larry H No! But we're a minority...

Kathy add me to the minority

Raine Add me too.

message 5: by Dan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dan Ries I totally agree with your review. Here is a copy of something I worte to a 2 star reviewer of this book:

Thank you for helping me know that I wasn’t the only one who felt this book was more of a chore to read rather than a pleasure. Throughout Constellation, I often found myself confused with the sequence of events. I’m not dumb – I saw the years noted in the beginning of each chapter – but that still did not make the book come together for me. I often found myself trying to piece together if a certain event had already happened or not. Marra says he wrote it in that style because it would be more analogous to the characters trying to piece together their broken lives. While that may be clever, for me it was more frustrating. I actually like books that deal with various points in time, books in which multiple stories unfold in a sequence that creates drama rather than chronological sense. But unfortunately for me, Marra created more confusion than anticipation.

As far as gaining a better understanding of Chechnya – I think I now know that I will never really understand all of the history and politics that lead up to the wars and fueled the wars. But I’m glad I at least have a basic knowledge – where before I was clueless.

Finally, I will say that Marra really does write amazingly moving passages that made the journey worth it in the end for me – and coaxed 3 stars out of me rather than 2. But it’s probably not a journey I’ll recommend to any friends.


Larry H Dan, thank you!! I couldn't agree with you more. I've had people write me a few nasty comments when I posted this review on Amazon. Marra is a gorgeous writer; I just didn't warm up to the story.

Susan I am struggling with this book. If I weren't reading it for a book group, I would have stopped before now.

Larry H Susan, you're not alone!!

message 9: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Has been on my list forever Larry, great review. Thanks.

Larry H Thanks, Suzanne. Lots of people loved it so I don't know...

Larry H Thanks, Suzanne. Lots of people loved it so I don't know...

Susan I'm glad to know there are other "readers" who agree with my feelings about the book. I'm still looking for the attraction. Historical fiction is my favorite genre. Disappointing....

Kayla Oh boy! was I ever so glad to find your review!! I struggled through this book, I couldn't connect or get lost into the story sometimes I felt like I was just reading words. Then there would be a flash of brilliant story telling, three pages later I was lost again!

Larry H Thanks, Susan and Kayla! I've been torn to pieces on Amazon for my review so it's nice to know people here on GR appreciate differing views...

Stacey Yes, thank you. I am actually laughing at people's gushing reviews of this book, because some of the comments are as pretentious as the passages in the novel! Besides not having a plot line, too many characters and time periods that shift constantly, I went through the motions of reading the book, but my heart just wasn't in it.

Larry H Thanks, Stacey!!

message 17: by Sara (new) - rated it 3 stars

Sara I agree with all of you. I'm about halfway through and I'm just not loving it. At all.

Larry H Thanks, Sara!! Clearly you are not alone!!

message 19: by Jennifer (new) - added it

Jennifer Masterson This one didn't work for me either Larry but I gave up on it. I'm going to try his new one "The Tzar of Love and Tango". Maybe his writing will click for me this time. I'll get it from the library so if it doesn't I have nothing to lose.

Larry H Jennifer, I've thought about reading that, too, but I'm just not sure. I don't know if the subject matter doesn't grab me or what.

message 21: by Jennifer (new) - added it

Jennifer Masterson Larry wrote: "Jennifer, I've thought about reading that, too, but I'm just not sure. I don't know if the subject matter doesn't grab me or what."

It could be the subject matter. I'm not sure either because I haven't jumped to read the new one but I'm going to try it when I do get my hands on it.

message 22: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa You summarized exactly why I did not like this book. Like you, I rated it as a three-star. Sure, there were some great metaphors and such, but many of those same lines felt shoved in there. I didn't mind that he changed narrators frequently, but this technique felt forced, not effortless.

message 23: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa The story did not connect with me either. The rare moments when I did feel taken in by the story, the author seemed to get in his own way of telling the story.

message 24: by Ana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ana Beatriz It was very hard for me to read this book. I started two years Ago, abandoned and returned decided to not no leave the story behind and unfold.
I usually love stories that bring aspects of a culture I don't know and specially about historical facts that are not discussed att School. This jogged me into the book but I can't understand what happened. If it was the dense narrative (although amazing, Anthony writes putting his soul into the Pages) or the rythm of the book or the Constant time-travel...

message 25: by Svetlana (new) - added it

Svetlana A great review Larry! 😊 - I think you've nailed how I currently feel. I generally like what I read and I was feeling bad about not getting into this one and loving it the way some people have. And there's certainly a lot of info dump which drags on for too long.. it makes it harder to connect to the story

Marialyce I think that the title of this book is outstanding. Perhaps that is the best part of this novel?

message 27: by Svetlana (new) - added it

Svetlana yes Marialyce I agree about the title, I was definitely drawn to it

message 28: by Jan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jan I, too, am in the minority. I found the jumping around in time to be confusing. I listened to the book and the narrator was dispassionate to the point of boredom. I wasn't sorry for this book to end

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