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message 1: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2072 comments THE SURRENDERED by Chang-rae Lee

This is our third official CR selection of a book by Chang-rae Lee. In October of 2002, we discussed A GESTURE LIFE, and in September of 2005, ALOFT was our selection for the month. It is always a treat to read a book by this author. I was able to get totally immersed in THE SURRENDERED, and I felt as if I were right there with June, Hector, and Sylvie. This doesn't happen often enough when I am reading.

This is the story of three damaged people. The first thirty pages of this book are heart-wrenching, and I have a friend who abandoned the book after reading only that part. This is unfortunate for her because this is a book that is well worth reading and discussing. That first section shows us why June became the woman she was. She is “a right hard stone” throughout her life. Hector's tragedy started the night he didn't accompany his father home from the bar, and from then on, he considered himself a loser. His view of himself seems to be self-perpetuating. Sylvie's painful history is gradually revealed to us as the book unfolds, and we understand why she turned to morphine for relief.

There are many topics that we can discuss, and I will begin with a couple of questions. Was June's method of raising her son the reason that he turned out the way he did? Why was Hector such an underachiever? What role does Sylvie play in the lives of June and Hector? What is the significance of the title?

I have more I want to say, and I hope you do also.


message 2: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 15, 2010 08:05AM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Hi Jane, I felt this book had great power, but I also felt it made some huge mistakes. I felt when it was good, it was wonderful, but when it was bad, it slipped into melodrama. Still, I'm very glad I read it and the stories are compelling. I felt the need to read on even after I encountered what I, personally, considered one of the book's big mistakes. I just want to point out that this is the first published book of Lee's written in the third person. His previous books have all been first person accounts, and I really noticed the difference. I thought Lee wove the stories together well, but I felt there was some unnecessary use of coincidence.

I don't feel the way June raised Nicholas had any bearing on the way he turned out. I felt Nicholas was just being "normal" for someone his age. People in their 20s often feel they have to get away and cut ties with their family for a time.

I think Hector's problems stemmed from what you already stated - his view of himself as an underachiever was self-perpetuating. I think he truly thought nothing could change until he met Dora. I think he had a real chance to change then, and was changing, but sadly, that was cut short.

Sylvie's tragedy ties the lives of June and Hector together, and I loved the way Lee did this. I thought the tying of June and Hector's life together through Sylvie's tragedy was masterful. (Sylvie was the character I could identify with most and found most sympathetic.)

I was thinking about the significance of the title yesterday. I think all three - June, Hector, and Sylvie surrendered to their fate. They didn't seem to do much to try to fight it.

I'm very interested in what others have to say about the book.


message 3: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2072 comments Gabrielle,
I don't think Nicholas was being "normal" at all. He really cut himself off from his mother for ten years, and she didn't see him the whole time.

Also, I don't think June surrendered to her fate. She was a fighter, although she does say "I surrender" to the cancer. By that point she doesn't have much choice.


message 4: by Marialyce (new)

Marialyce I, also, was not a fan of this book. I never could feel any closeness with any of the characters and therefore never felt the sympathy which I am sure Mr. Lee wanted the reader to feel. The gloomy pages filled me with angst and left me wanting to feel as if I needed one good thing to happen.

Needing to finish this saga, I pushed myself to read in the hopes that there might be a sliver of some goodness hiding within the pages. Sorry to say, I found none. While I agree at times the prose was wonderfully written, I just could not feel like I was a part of any of the tragedies related. IMO, I felt like an outsider reading and never could embrace the words, the thoughts, and the views of the author and his characters.


message 5: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 15, 2010 11:26AM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Jane wrote: "Gabrielle,
I don't think Nicholas was being "normal" at all. He really cut himself off from his mother for ten years, and she didn't see him the whole time.

Also, I don't think June surrendered t..."


I think if I'd had a mother like June, I wouldn't have gone back, either, Jane. (I'm not referring to the way Nicholas was raised, but the relationship June had, or didn't have, with him after he became an adult.) June didn't even care enough to keep phoning the hospital about Nicholas. I couldn't forgive her for that. I know I would have never given up. I don't want to try to second guess Lee, but I think in creating June, he wanted to create a woman who needed a strong shell around her in order to survive. For me, she came off as just plain mean and spiteful. Both Hector and June were so "one note" for me, and I thought the secondary characters, like Ames and Benjamin were sketchily drawn.

I didn't mean June surrendered to cancer exactly. As you pointed out, she had no choice but to do that, but she surrendered to her fate. I don't see her as a fighter at all. She made it to Italy, and she managed to establish a thriving business, I'll give her that.

Marialyce, I couldn't connect with any of the characters, either. I really didn't care about them at all. I thought the writing was good, and the transitions were very smooth, though I got no sense of the passing of time, and I couldn't forgive the use of coincidence with Dora and the detective and the passport for Hector, and that surely would have never worked, especially today with airport security so stringent. I don't think it would have worked in 1986, the "present" of the book. Surely Lee could have done something else. The stolen passport just wasn't necessary.

And all the build up to Nicholas and then to have him be a "straw man" was terrible, in my opinion. He was just a plot device. Lee built us up for this mother/son reunion that never took place. I kind of felt like Lee wrote himself into a corner with Nicholas and didn't know how to get out of it. I think the reader deserved more, though.

I felt the book had power, but I felt that power wasn't tempered with enough subtlety. It was operatic in its melodrama, I think. In the end, it was too melodramatic for me and I love dark, bleak books. I did get the power of the final page, though.

I want to say that I didn't find the book all bad. I felt this was a case that "when it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad, it was horrid."

I think the book had the potential to be a masterpiece had Lee smoothed out a few things, given his characters traces of humanity. Perhaps he was trying to show us people who've been so beaten down by life that they've surrendered their humanity. Yet, if this was the case, I couldn't buy it. Even survivors of Nazi concentration camps have more humanity than June, Hector, and Sylvie. I wish Lee would have shown us some "saving grace" in his characters. Hector seemed to be on his way to some semblance of humanity with Dora (an improbable choice to me), but Lee cut that short for the coincidence. And I didn't know whether Lee wanted Dora to be the town "bad woman" who turned her life around or a misplaced hausfrau. I couldn't get a reading on her at all.

And while it might not bother some readers, there was just too much fornication and adultery in this book for me. I was okay with it until Ames pulled Sylvie out of the bathtub. That was "too much."

I just felt the book "could have been, should have been, but wasn't." I'm anxious to see what others thought of it. I only gave it 2 1/2 stars (out of five) on my book blog, but I did recommend it, with the proviso that when it's good, it's excellent, and when it's not, it's pretty bad.


message 6: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9548 comments I had mixed reactions to this book, too, but I'll just note here that I don't think we're given enough information to make any kind of judgment on how Nicholas was raised.


message 7: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 15, 2010 11:28AM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Ruth wrote: "I had mixed reactions to this book, too, but I'll just note here that I don't think we're given enough information to make any kind of judgment on how Nicholas was raised."

It seemed he and June had a close relationship when he was young, Ruth. She seemed to really love him. That's why I can't understand her not pursuing the phone call from the hospital, especially when Nicholas' requests for money changed so much.


message 8: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2072 comments Ruth wrote: "I had mixed reactions to this book, too, but I'll just note here that I don't think we're given enough information to make any kind of judgment on how Nicholas was raised."

Actually, I think Lee gives a lot of information about June's child-rearing. On p.46, June says that Nicholas was on his own a lot while she was working. They did do things together, but it seemed to be an extension of her business trips. On. p. 241, June is musing about Nicholas. Nicholas, of course, had always been especially subject to her commands; even as a teen he couldn't help but follow her wishes without argument. At some point, she would find herself being particularly unreasonable, sometimes squarely merciless, hoping that he would argue or talk back sharply to her, but he never did, merely assenting, or drifting off to another room of the apartment. June also states that she knew that he had a history of stealing, but she never confronted him. She seems to have rationalized his actions. So I think Nicholas had had enough of June when he graduated from high school. Instead of drifting into another room, he drifted out of her life.


message 9: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 15, 2010 12:11PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Jane wrote: "Ruth wrote: "I had mixed reactions to this book, too, but I'll just note here that I don't think we're given enough information to make any kind of judgment on how Nicholas was raised."

Actually, ..."


Why do you think June did not follow up on the call from the hospital, Jane? That is one thing I couldn't reconcile. If I could, I would have more sympathy for June, who certainly had a difficult life. I feel bad for her because of that difficult life, but I felt worse for Nicholas, I think.


message 10: by Janet (new)

Janet Leszl | 1163 comments Wow, once again it seems my opinion of a book is different from others here. I will admit though, after the tale swerved away from June, I started to get annoyed first with Hector’s and then Sylvie’s stories. I think it was because of recently reading Tinkers. That novel began with an interesting story of one character and then pretty much dumped him to tell the story of a completely different character. I thought that was what was going to happen here as well. If fact, about 40% through The Surrendered I made a note to myself wondering about what I considered flashbacks within flashbacks within a side story within another side story. However, quickly after that, the author more skillfully (IMO) began demonstrating the interconnectedness of the three lives.

Each had experienced horrific examples of inhumanity during war. To me they surrendered to becoming different people as a result of their traumas. June began as a protective older sister. Despite her effort, all her family died, she was alone to battle the world and the person she could have been was replaced with one more focused on self interest and self preservation. The spartan but idealistic missionary zeal inspired by Sylvie’s parents was snuffed out in China. From then on Sylvie was obsessed with her war book while also trying to retreat from feeling anything in life through morphine use. Hector’s downward spiral began with his father’s death but was intensified by wartime’s soul robbing; he was particularly haunted by the young enemy soldier.

With each of the three, the person they were meant to be died and they surrendered to their new reality.


message 11: by Yulia (last edited Nov 19, 2010 12:25PM) (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments I was deeply drawn into the book, actually, and managed to believe in the potential existence of individuals like Hector, Sylvie and June. I agree with Jane that June didn't surrender to her fate and fought to the very end, from chasing the train to prospering in America and truly fighting cancer as if it were another enemy at the orphanage.

I like how you put it, Janet, about surrendering to their new realities. June, Hector and Sylvie had all surrendered to not being the people they'd envisioned themselves as capable of becoming.

In that sense, I think they were all very human, however flawed. To me, humanity (the second definition of being human, rather than humane) doesn't represent simply the noble in us.

As for why Hector was an underachiever, perhaps it had to do with his not experiencing physical pain as others did, so he felt no need to protect himself or shelter himself with a more proper, comfortable life. It reminds me of a guy I know who heals very quickly and therefore is always getting into very dangerous situations, if only because he can get away with it and needs more danger to feel. So security, which for me is a driving force, is alien to him and Hector, I'd assume.

As for Dora representing a new start for Hector, I didn't buy into that. He may have wanted her to be his savior or instigation to be a better person, but I don't know if he had the willpower not to hurt her, if the car hadn't. Wanting to be better isn't in itself enough to make someone better.


message 12: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 15, 2010 02:42PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments I like flawed characters, just not characters that are all bad or all good. I just couldn't find any redeeming qualities in June, Hector, or Sylvie. And all three seemed very selfish to me, especially June and Sylvie. Sylvie had to have her morphine and Ames and Hector. June had to have whatever it was she wanted at the time, even stealing a dead man's passport and forcing another man to risk using it just to further her own agenda. This isn't even taking into account the fact that she and Hector had to have fled the scene of a fatal accident. Hector didn't even have the decency to stick around when his lover was killed. Hector just drifted, and if Dora didn't represent a new start for Hector, a new chance, she was just a plot device, which would be another deficiency in craft in this book.

The foreshadowing regarding Nicholas' fate was so heavy handed, too. We get it. Subtlety is a virtue.

I don't believe Hector would have helped June. I couldn't buy that. He couldn't stand her. And those little houses they broke into in Italy and stayed in - that could not have happened, either.


message 13: by Yulia (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments Perhaps he saw that, though he disliked June, he was at root no better than she in the end, so he had no reason to fault her, but actually admired the drive in her which he never had himself. Even in the orphanage, I think he respected her for not being like the other kids. And though he wasn't a parent to Nicholas, her clear love for their son, while too late in being expressed, may have reminded him he'd never been there for Nicholas at all, despite his own suffering from having lost his father. Her fight to live put his own indifference to shame, I felt. That seemed a more plausible wake-up call than meeting Dora.

The passport issue and the haste of their departure to Italy, I saw, but had to let go in order to appreciate what the book did have.


TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments The passport issue would have been so easy for Lee to avoid. Just give Hector a valid one of his own. It's not a stretch of the imagination to believe he would possess one even if he never used it.

I respect your opinions, Yulia, and I think all opinions are valid, certainly as valid as mine, but Lee didn't sell me on the fact that Hector would have gone with June. I think he would have turned his back on her.


message 15: by Yulia (last edited Nov 15, 2010 03:08PM) (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments I agree, Gabrielle, about his not having been likely (in any way) to accompany June at that point, unless he were being blackmailed and even then. . . . I had to not focus on that point to see what happened in Italy. I was just explaining his making food for her and tending to her when he did get to know her better on the trip. The earlier lapse in credibility (which did need to be fixed), I looked away from :)

I also agree that it wasn't necessarily abnormal or irregular for Nicholas to leave his mom without much communication. She'd hardly deserved his affection when he was growing up. It seemed she saw him more as an inconvenience until she got sick. After all, many adult children "divorce" their parents.


message 16: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 15, 2010 03:11PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments I agree with you, Yulia.

I really couldn't care about the characters myself, but I was curious about how it all turned out. Lee did keep me turning the pages. :) The book couldn't have been all bad for me.

I liked the way Lee interwove the stories, but it all got too operatic for me. Not that I don't like opera, I love it, just not in novels.


message 17: by Janet (new)

Janet Leszl | 1163 comments Gabrielle wrote: "I like flawed characters, just not characters that are all bad or all good. I just couldn't find any redeeming qualities in June, Hector, or Sylvie. And all three seemed very selfish to me, espec..."

As I said, there were parts I did not like in the beginning of the book, at times things seemed too drawn out. But I did like and believe the characters. I could see the relationship between their experiences and the people they became.

Slightly off topic, a few days ago, Oprah had an entire audience composed of men who'd been sexually abused as a child. One after another they related how their traumas changed who they were and how they viewed the world. Their ability to trust and have successful relationships was shattered by what they went through. As horrendous as molestation is, I can imagine the horrors the characters in this book experienced in order to survive war could damage what should have been their better instincts.

Yet, they weren’t all bad. June appeared to have been liked in her later day life as shop keeper. The man she was leaving furniture to for a future child seemed to be grateful and would miss her. Sylvie was greatly loved by the children at the orphanage. Hector..., well he seemed to have trouble even liking himself. Sometimes people like that are the hardest to find good in, but his lazy boss seemed to grudgingly respect him a bit.

As for Nicholas, the real one that is, the distance in time between correspondences was gradual at first. I felt sorry for June; in her heart she had to have known what happened but couldn’t bring her mind to accept once again she had no living family. And I did feel sorry for Hector to lose Dora as well. I think she had to die though; he would not have gone with June otherwise.


message 18: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 15, 2010 06:41PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Oh, I don't think June knew what happened to Nicholas at all. I didn't feel sorry for Hector about losing Dora because he was so cold-hearted about it. He just accepted a stolen passport and left with June. He didn't even bother to accompany Dora's body to the hospital or morgue. I don't have sympathy for someone who acts like that. His 180 turn as far as June was concerned was totally unbelievable to me, and it was made all the more unbelievable by what happened to Dora, which was sort of June's fault. (And she showed no remorse for Dora's death or for the death of her own detective.)

Men in my family were in war. They saw their best friends blown apart. Some were taken as POWs and were tortured by North Koreans for more than a year. Not one of them became as selfish and self-centered as the characters in this book, so I couldn't buy war as their reason for being the way they were. Not all three of them. They seemed to glory in the fact that they were stripped of any feeling for their fellow man (and woman).

I think this book is polarizing. People are going to love it or not be able to find much in its characters to like. I belong to the second group, but as I said, I still recommend it to people, just with a proviso regarding the melodrama.


message 19: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2072 comments I certainly don't agree with you about Hector, Gabrielle. I think he is a person who had very deep feelings. He loved the children in the orphanage and he was afraid he would somehow hurt them. He blamed himself for Min's injury with the ax, and he blamed himself for the fire. I loved the scene where June tells Hector that he doesn't play games with the children because he doesn't want to have fun. He replies that the same is true of her. They are both punishing themselves for what happened in the past as is Sylvie. To me, they are all sympathetic characters.

I think it is very plausible that one could break into a country home anywhere in Europe and in this country also. As Yulia said you have to overlook the whole passport thing and appreciate the rest of the story. What to you is a flawed plot device makes sense to me.


message 20: by Yulia (last edited Nov 15, 2010 08:23PM) (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments When reading the book, I thought Lee wanted us to question whether June should have known that Nicholas was dead and that the one she met was a fake, but I didn't know if I'd have been able to tell Nicholas was dead from the change in his communication. I'd have assumed the accident made him see life and his mother differently, hence his change in tone. Also, if it was obvious he was dead (from an injury that didn't seem life-threatening), would the PI have taken on the case in good faith?


message 21: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 15, 2010 08:12PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments I'm sorry, Jane. I didn't make myself clear in my previous post.

I actually rather liked Hector. I just didn't like or sympathize with him leaving Dora like he did, dead in the street and I didn't really like Dora. I felt that was heartless of him. I didn't think he was heartless all the time. Of the three, I think Hector retained the deepest feelings and the most promise, though I felt the most complex character was Sylvie.

I still don't think it's believable that someone could break into a house like they did.

I'm no doubt more critical of flaws in plotting because I worked as a fiction editor for years. I can't overlook the whole passport thing. It's a part of the book and it could have been corrected so easily. Lee is too good a writer to make that mistake. But what bothered me most was the fact that Nicholas was a plot device. The meeting between Nicholas and June need not have gone well, but I think it needed to happen. Not having it happen cheats the reader. Still, as I said, the book did keep me engaged. I liked the darkness of it, though I wish that darkness had been a bit more subtle.


message 22: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 15, 2010 09:02PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Yulia wrote: "When reading the book, I thought Lee wanted us to question whether June should have known that Nicholas was dead and that the one she met was a fake, but I didn't know if I'd have been able to tell..."

The PI found a "Nicholas Singer" in Italy. I don't think he investigated whether or not he was fake, Yulia since June didn't give him any reason to suspect someone might be stealing Nicholas' identity. If the PI had lived to go to Italy, then I think he would have known immediately that "Nicholas" was not "the" Nicholas and would have told June.

I just want to clarify that I'm not sorry I read this book. It did keep me engrossed and turning the pages. I just found some big flaws with it that I can't overlook, though they didn't ruin the book for me. It's not my favorite book, but it's not one I really dislike, either. Lee can't write for me, so naturally, I'm going to prefer things a little differently. All Lee can do is write his story the way he wants to tell it. I respect his choices even if I don't agree with all of them. It's not my book.

In fact, I might even put this book on my blog as one of the "Best Books of 2010" despite what I felt were faults. I can't deny the book's power.


message 23: by Yulia (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments I actually didn't think of the fake Nicholas as a plot device, unlike the car accident. I thought, that's what you get for being an absentee mother: a fake son. And I found it painfully moving when he pretended to be Nicholas at her bedside, even if it was because of Hector's threat. If anything, the fake Nicholas seemed more like a true progeny of Hector and June had he been raised by both, not someone who simply stole small things as an act of rebellion. The real Nicholas's absence from the book was a somber reminder that we don't always get our last wishes fulfilled nor can we always make up for past mistakes. The true Nicholas seemed a ghost character in the book as much as Sylvie did.


message 24: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 15, 2010 08:25PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Sylvie didn't seem like a ghost to me, she was the most fleshed-out and complex character for me, though I do understand what you mean when you call her a "ghost character," Yulia. So much of her had been drained by the hardships she faced in life.

I still found Nicholas a plot device, or more a "straw man." The thrust of the book was June reuniting with Nicholas and that set the reader up for a meeting between Nicholas and June and that meeting didn't take place. I felt cheated.


message 25: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7868 comments What you think of as the plot devices feel like the strengths of the book to me. It would have been more "normal" or pleasing to readers to have the real Nicholas live and reunite with his mother and father, but much of the conflict of the book would have been missing. The one thing I thought was too coincidental was the car accident. But I easily forgave that. It seemed like a metaphorical plot device, but maybe a necessary one. The passport thing didn't bother me. I'm sure bribes as big as the one June gave the official work all the time. It would have seemed very out of character for Hector to have a passport, and very in-character for June to bribe.

I really like your take on the fake Nicholas, Yulia. Absentee mother = fake son. It seemed very likely to me. Maybe June should have noticed the difference in the tone of the correspondence (especially when he started asking for more money than usual), but I think she balanced her doubts with her desire to have absolution. She and Hector were comrades in guilt. They both felt the need to absolve themselves. June of her guilt of her dead family, her dead love (Sylvie) and her lost son, which she blamed herself for, I'm sure. Hector for his lost father, and for his self-imposed idea that he was the death angel for anyone he loved. I understood June. I thought June was the most well-developed character. Hector was more mysterious to me.


message 26: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9548 comments When you come right down to it, all characters and events in a novel are plot devices, aren't they? Even "character studies" illuminate a character's actions, which in turn feed the plot.


message 27: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 16, 2010 08:23AM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments A bribe could have just as easily landed all three involved in prison, Sherry. Not everyone is corrupt. Most people are more concerned with keeping their honesty and their jobs.

Nicholas is sort of like Chekhov's gun to me. If you trot him out in the first act, and Lee did, in spades, you'd better use him by the third. Lee never used him. And June just "conveniently" went blind at the time she was to meet Nicholas, just like an untended house was "conveniently" there and Dora "conveniently" died and the detective "conveniently" had a passport with him at the time. Gack! Too much "convenience" and "coincidence" for me. That does not work for people who spend months, even years, making sure their books are meticulously written. The whole book felt like something Lee rushed through to me. After Lee's previous books, this was a huge disappointment.

The people in Italy aren't backward yokels. They keep their homes locked and many have security systems, especially in the country, just like we do here. We had an extensive security system in Ohio because we were in the country and needless to say, we do here as well. It's the same in Italy.

I didn't understand June. I didn't understand why she even wanted to see Nicholas after a lifetime of not caring, not even bothering to contact that hospital as any normal mother would have done. That was yet another "convenience" to further the plot. And that brings up another unbelievable thing to me, which you mentioned - June certainly would have become suspicious when the tone of the letters changed and Nicholas began asking for more money. Yet she "conveniently" overlooked that as well. And Lee could have so easily corrected that by simply having June be suspicious and the detective calming her suspicions by telling her he did, indeed, find her son. That would have made even the meeting go down a little easier than a huge spoonful of castor oil.

The sad thing, to me, is that all this could have been handled without so much convenience and contrivance, but Lee chose not to go the better route, for whatever reason.


message 28: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 16, 2010 08:54AM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Ruth wrote: "When you come right down to it, all characters and events in a novel are plot devices, aren't they? Even "character studies" illuminate a character's actions, which in turn feed the plot."

No, all characters aren't plot devices, Ruth. Not in the way we're discussing them. It would be like a painter "painting by numbers." These are deus ex machina devices, it's the lazy man's way of writing. Instead of coming up with something believable and plausible, they create a contrivance, instead.

I mean this: deus ex machina - "a plot device whereby a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new character, ability, or object."

If Hector can't get to Italy, it's a major problem. Bingo! The detective conveniently carries his passport with him and the detective is conveniently dead and Dora is conveniently dead and June conveniently goes through a line at immigration where the official can conveniently be bribed and on and on. Deficiencies in craft, all of them. And I can't understand why. Lee's previous books did not contain such deficiencies.

Or: plot device - "A plot device is an object or character in a story whose sole purpose is to advance the plot of the story, or alternatively to overcome some difficulty in the plot. A contrived or arbitrary plot device may annoy or confuse the reader, causing a loss of the suspension of disbelief. However a well-crafted plot device, or one that emerges naturally from the setting or characters of the story, may be entirely accepted, or may even be unnoticed by the audience."

It's to be avoided at all costs in a novel, but in this one, we have Dora dying, the detective dying and having his passport with him, the airport official just happening to be dishonest and taking a bribe, which is totally unbelievable at Leonardo da Vinci, a house conveniently left untended and the owners not returning, June conveniently going blind and not recognizing Nicholas' change in letter writing tone, etc.

An author can get away with maybe one convenience in a book, two in a book the size of War and Peace (and there are none in that book), but all the contrivance in this book was just way, way too much. And it needn't have been. After I read the book, or even as I was reading it, I could think of five or six ways to fix every contrivance. And it wasn't my book. That's the sad part. The book had so much potential, but it was wasted, for the most part.


message 29: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1373 comments I think Lee must have had a reason for including the fake passport line, as he didn't have to explain anything about passports, really (which Gabrielle already noted). And I agree with you, Gabrielle, that it didn't work (for me, anyway), though I don't think it was a deus ex machina as it did not resolve a major plot problem. (In a weird way, I thought the accident was a deus ex machina.) On the other hand, I fully believe one could bribe an Italian immigration official & get away with it, but ... what did Hector plan on doing on his return to the US?

However, the use-the-dead-guy's-passport is a one-liner in the book and, IMHO, doesn't signify much in terms of the merits of the book over-all.

Likewise, I did not think having Nicholas dead was an unforgivable "plot device." (All books have minor characters who advance the action in some way, right?) I thought his being dead for the whole time June was planning their reunion just increased the level of futility in the book. No sense having just one tiny ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak landscape, right?


message 30: by Janet (new)

Janet Leszl | 1163 comments Gabrielle wrote: "I didn't understand June. I didn't understand why she even wanted to see Nicholas after a lifetime of not caring, not even bothering to contact that hospital as any normal mother would have done. ..."

I believe awareness of one's imminent demise is a great motivator for anyone to get their affairs in order, tie up loose ends and attempt to resolve regrets over actions taken or absent.

I didn’t see June as uncaring; there are different styles of parenting. There are “helicopter” parents who intervene at every sneeze and others who watch from the sidelines to let their children toughen up, learning from the results of their actions. Frankly, given her life experiences, I don’t see how June could have been any other way. Though at first, I doubted her nonchalance over Nicholas’ pick-pocketing. When I considered further, she wasn’t blameless in that regard-stealing the blanket. Yes, she did it in survival mode but, once crossing a line, do we then relax the standards we hold up for others?


message 31: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 16, 2010 09:09AM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Mary Ellen wrote: "I think Lee must have had a reason for including the fake passport line, as he didn't have to explain anything about passports, really (which Gabrielle already noted). And I agree with you, Gabri..."

It wasn't just the passport, Mary Ellen, but the all of the many plot devices put together. A deus ex machina doesn't have to solve a major problem, just further the plot. Surely, Hector not having a passport was a major problem. There were far too many of these problems and they needn't have been. A person can get a passport the same day if they go to Washington, DC, for example. A fleeting passage about them doing that could have been written. Or June could have had a passport ready for Hector since she was searching for him and knew he'd probably be in need of one.

I think anyone trying to bribe an Italian official, especially at Leonardo da Vinci, would be in jail faster than they knew what happened to them. It never crosses my mind to do anything illegal and even I feel "watched" and "under control" at that airport.

It's always good to present a character with a difficult choice. It would have been better, I think, to keep Dora alive and to keep Nicholas alive.

Regarding June's "imminent" demise. She'd known for some time that she had stomach cancer. Why did she wait until she could barely travel to reunite with Nicholas? A normal person wouldn't have done that. They would have not searched at all after ten years, or they would have started the search while they could still make the trip without being carried. That was something else that was unbelievable.

And what kind of detective did she hire? He should have known that Nicholas was an impostor. In fact, had the detective let the readers know that Nicholas was an impostor, but not June, not yet, it would have made the whole thing less "straw man" like and added poignancy to the meeting between June and the impostor. It would have given the reader a reason to really feel for June all along, knowing her search was going to be fruitless.

I really wish I knew why Lee made some of the choices he did. I certainly don't want to second guess him. That wouldn't be fair.

I don't want to disparage Lee's book, just state how I felt. I'm glad it worked for others, but it just didn't work for me. Still, I thought the actual writing was good, the transitions smooth, and I thought it had a lot of potential.


message 32: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9548 comments I know what a deus ex machina device is, Gabrielle. And I would have understood your prior comment if that was the wording you used.

I didn't restrict my "plot device" remark to those contrived only for that. I said, when you get down to it, meaning at the most basic level. Every part of a book contributes to advancing the plot and is therefore a plot device in the broad sense.


message 33: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 16, 2010 09:21AM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Ruth wrote: "I know what a deus ex machina device is, Gabrielle. And I would have understood your prior comment if that was the wording you used.

I didn't restrict my "plot device" remark to those contrived on..."


If we talk about it that way, every book is contrived, too, Ruth, but the contrivance should never be obvious.

I'm always singled out and being forced into defending my every word in a book discussion and I don't think that's fair. I respect the opinions of others even when I don't agree with them. I respect Lee. I'm not going to ask someone to defend why this book did work for him or her, and I've looked at the Amazon reviews and I know I'm not alone in not liking what I see as the deficiencies in craft in this book, so it's not "only me." I think my feelings about the book should be respected, too. It doesn't matter who, if anyone agrees with me. That's not necessary. None of us is the "be all and end all of novel writing." All of our opinions are just as valid as the next person's. Mine, too. And every book will have those who love it and those who don't like it at all. I know people who hate Anna Karenina and people who love The Da Vinci Code.

The phrase "plot device" is used to connote something negative about the writing, not something positive. Most characters, objects, situations, dialogue, etc. in a book should do more than just advance the plot. Dialogue can and should advance the plot, reveal character, and give exposition, among other things.


message 34: by Marialyce (new)

Marialyce I am with you, Gabrielle. The book did not work on so many levels. The dialogue was stilted and the plot devices were just that devices, not anything that added substance and feeling to the being of the various characters. I've read that someone called it "the feel bad" novel of the year. The characters were often wooden.

The New Yorker's James Wood is perhaps the most notable of these critics. The book is "alas, utterly conventional," Wood declares.

Though Wood notes Lee's "brilliance of prose" and his "relentless, cruel calm" in his descriptions of war, Wood found much of the plot to be "if not melodramatic, then certainly stagy, even bookish, a livid libretto, something made for the novel rather than made by it."


message 35: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 16, 2010 09:38AM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Marialyce wrote: "I am with you, Gabrielle. The book did not work on so many levels. The dialogue was stilted and the plot devices were just that devices, not anything that added substance and feeling to the being o..."

Wood - and you - said it far better than I ever could, Marialyce. I'd not read that. Thank you for posting it and for your thoughts. Wood and you describe how I felt about the book, too. I honestly didn't mind the bleakness, though a little ray of sun would have helped, I think. What bothered me so much were the other things you listed.

I'm not saying it didn't have promise, but it seemed so rushed and unedited, even by Lee, to me.


TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments What is the theme of this book? I saw the theme as the long-term effects of war. If that is the theme, then it's a very powerful one. Personally, I don't believe Lee developed it to its fullest, or maybe he tried to take it too far. Even if the horrors of war stay with people for the rest of their lives, they usually have some high points in life to savor even if they are "small" high points.


message 37: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7868 comments Gabrielle, I don't think anyone is being unfair to you. I happen to disagree with you on several aspects of this book--I disagree with Woods on several aspects of the book. But I don't think you're being unfair to me. Let's let all of us have our own takes on the book and have a good discussion. I hope more people start participating.


message 38: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 16, 2010 11:12AM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Sherry wrote: "Gabrielle, I don't think anyone is being unfair to you. I happen to disagree with you on several aspects of this book--I disagree with Woods on several aspects of the book. But I don't think you'r..."

Okay, thank you, Sherry. It's inevitable that everyone isn't going to like or dislike the same books. That's fine with me. I don't care who disagrees with me on the merits of a book or why. It's a discussion, after all. We're all bound to have differing viewpoints and I respect that. I even like it. I just want to be allowed to hold my own point of view, without having to always defend it.

I realize some people are going to think I'm too hard on the book. That's fine. I am very hard on books, harder than most, and I know it. I'm that way with myself, too. I'm not singling out Lee or any other author. I would never criticize an author for something that I wouldn't criticize myself for. I just want to be accorded the same respect as others, that's all. I don't mind questions or disagreement, though.

I think we all have to realize that because we're different people, we're going to react to books differently and to different characters differently. For example, someone said they thought June was the most developed character. I thought it was Sylvie, far and away. For me, she contained the most darkness and light, or at least potential light. But who's to say who is right? I don't think there's any right or wrong in that. I think that's a subjective thing.

I realize Lee put a tremendous amount of work into this book and I respect that and I respect Lee. I feel guilty for not liking it more. I tried to like it more. I just couldn't, but that doesn't mean I think it's all bad. I do see power in the book and for me, personally, a potential masterpiece. But again, for me, personally, it just didn't reach the heights it could have.

I hope more people join the discussion, too. There is a lot in the book to discuss.


message 39: by Janet (new)

Janet Leszl | 1163 comments It truly is amazing the different takes people have on books and the amount of passion in defending various views. It's nice that when the dust settles we all can remain friends and, if nothing else, appreciate how the discussions get us to think about things from another vantage point.

When I first saw the description of The Surrendered I mentally groaned. War theme movies and books are not really my cup of tea. Also, I read over 1/3 fully expecting I'd be ranting against this novel.I felt June’s tale was abandoned for too long. I would have preferred the author to incorporate alternating their stories sooner. Yet I kind of surprised myself by liking it as much as I do.

I guess that’s the power of books, though; to surprise us, stir our passions, and glimpse another way of seeing the diversity in humanity.


TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Janet wrote: "It truly is amazing the different takes people have on books and the amount of passion in defending various views. It's nice that when the dust settles we all can remain friends and, if nothing els..."

At first, I thought Lee abandoned June's story for too long, too. When he got back to her, he didn't leave her for so long again, though.


message 41: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7868 comments Okay, then I guess we agree that we can go on to other topics. I think we've covered this one at length.

I thought the character of Hector was rather mysterious. What did people think of him? Was his physical beauty and his easy healing and lack of pain a metaphor for something?


message 42: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1373 comments I thought Hector's character was not fully realized, but then, I think that is one point of the book: how initial traumas stunt (or can stunt) the people who experience them. Hector blamed himself for the death of his father and apparently never gave himself fully to any subsequent relationship or activity that was not potentially self-destructive. Since his indirect attempts at suicide failed, he apparently resolved to just stop living at any meaningful level. Yet I accepted his relationship with Dora at face value. She seemed to be the first wholly decent person he encountered.

I thought his mysterious capacity to survive any injury, even any dangerous situation, was odd. And though Lee reminds us many times that Hector is very good-looking, I imagined him to be very nondescript because of his depressed and depressing personality.


message 43: by Yulia (last edited Nov 16, 2010 04:06PM) (new)

Yulia | 1642 comments Mary Ellen, I agree that Hector had stopped living on some level. When I was rereading the book, the phrases that caught my attention were "half-alive" and "self-burial." It was as if all three main characters were in purgatories of their own creation, and that Hector and Sylvie especially were trying to bury themselves and that June had long ago buried her feelings on losing her family.

What I found so beautiful was the room of Sylvie's first lover, draped in flawed velvet cloth. It was a tomb of sorts, but so haunting like a forgotten opera stage, as if a tomb was where he and Sylvie could come to life.


message 44: by Marialyce (new)

Marialyce Hector's outward beauty and his ability to heal on the outside so very quickly was an antithesis to his inward inability to be healed. He was creature of blame. He was just the opposite in spirit, or devoid of what one might call inner beauty.


message 45: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 16, 2010 02:50PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments I agree with Marialyce. Hector seemed to be devoid of inner beauty. Maybe that's why his character was so little developed. (I do think he was less developed than June or Sylvie.)

At first, I thought Hector was going to learn to love a little with Dora, but then, when he left her lying in the street, I realized he was devoid of the ability to love, in my opinion.

I didn't think Dora was wholly decent, though. She was the town floozy, a drunk like Hector. I didn't dislike her, but I found it difficult to accept her 180 turn from a drunk to the woman who cooked and cleaned for Hector. I do realize any woman Hector met would have probably had to be in a bar.


message 46: by Janet (new)

Janet Leszl | 1163 comments Hector seemed the least motivated to do anything. He stayed at the orphanage in Korea after the war, not out of altruism, but because he didn't have anyone or anywhere particular to go to. He was lacking in genuine emotion until Dora entered the picture and even that was just the emergence of feeling.

Dora was by no means an ideal person. Yet, somehow they seemed suited for each other, to start filling in the gaps in each other the way two wounded souls might be drawn together. That's why I was so sad to see her die. I thought Hector was finally going to make a break through, to find some purpose in his life.


message 47: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 16, 2010 03:30PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments I don't know if Hector could have successfully managed to learn to live fully after so many years, but at least he seemed to be trying with Dora, and she seemed to be trying to be a better person with him. I was sad to see Dora die, too. It seemed these people were deprived of everything that makes life worth living.

But if the theme is the long term effects of war, and I'm not sure it is, others who've been in war and seen horrific things and suffered horrifically do manage to live productive, emotionally healthy lives. What made Hector, June, and Sylvie different? I don't know myself.


message 48: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7868 comments Janet, it seems to me that what Hector lacked wasn't genuine emotion, but the inability to channel it in a healthy way. I thought his problem was an overload of emotion and he dealt with it by trying to turn himself off -- by dulling his feelings through violence and drink. I think even his constant physical working at the orphanage, digging the trenches, chopping wood, building things was a way to dull or short-circuit the painful raw feelings of guilt and sadness that overwhelmed him.


message 49: by Mary Anne (new)

Mary Anne | 1515 comments Hector's father regularly took Hector to the bar and waged bets that Hector could outdrink all of the others in the bar. This is really child abuse, which, as Janet points out, is quite damaging. The fact that Hector's first declaration of independence from his father resulted in the older man's death, tipped his future over a cliff. Ames recognized right off that Hector would be trouble. After all, on the day Ames and Sylvie came to the orphanage, in a moment of inattention by Hector, Min amputated his own toes!

We should note that the title is The Surrendered, and not Surrendered. To me, the preceeding article makes all the difference, not that June, Sylvie or Hector surrendered, but were themselves surrendered, as in something done to them, not by them. It reminds me of when Rumsfeld used the phrase "collateral" when referring to the casualties of war. You really don't want to get too close to war collateral, because you know it isn't going to be pretty. That tells the reader that these characters are supposed to be unlikable.

I read A Gesture Life, which I highly recommend. That book also included war segments, which had a dramatic impact on the main character's ability to have a healthy relationship with his daughter. While what I would call "the misery index" in that book was not as high as in The Surrendered, I did find this to be an outstanding work. I am not bothered about whether certain things would happen or not. It just seems to waste energy when one could be considering other things.

For example, why do you think Sylvie threw herself at Ames? Did she think he was her last chance to save herself from herself?


message 50: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Nov 16, 2010 09:18PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments The characters were such weak people. Life isn't a cakewalk for any of us. Plenty of people came back from war and married or had children and were good husbands and good parents and productive workers and friends. Readers generally prefer flawed characters, but not weak characters. June was too weak to allow herself to be vulnerable, and she was so unbelievably mean. Hector was too weak to allow himself to love. Leaving Dora dead in the street was unforgivable. Sylvie was too weak to go through life without drugs. I like the fact that they were flawed, but I would have liked them better had they shown a little bit of compassion for their fellow man. It didn't need to be a lot, just a glimmer, but we don't even get that.

That's the problem with the characters, MAP, they didn't act, but were acted upon. They didn't even try to take life into their own hands and make it better as far as relating to others goes. June had a thriving antiques business, but that wasn't a close personal relationship. She failed at those as did Hector and Sylvie.

I don't think I've ever read a book with so much promise that was still so flawed. Strangely, the war segments, which had the most potential for melodrama, were the most subtle and best written in the book. Lee did an excellent job with the war scenes.


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