Have you ever read a book you thought was perfect? Have you ever found a novel that, as you finished the final page with an inward sigh of satisfaction, made you feel all your hopes for the story and the characters had been utterly fulfilled? And have you ever read a sequel that’s completely ruined it?
I have – and the small number of times it’s happened stick very vividly in my mind. I’m not talking here about the law of diminishing returns that so often applies to a long series of books (or films and TV shows come to that); when I start reading any kind of series I do so half expecting that at some point I will either tire of it or the standard of the books may slip somewhat. I’m thinking now of the books that didn’t need to be written, that took a perfectly satisfying story far beyond its breaking point and forever coloured your reading of the original novel.
A book of this kind that haunts me to this day (and still makes me twitch ever so slightly with anger) is “The Glass of Time” by Michael Cox, sequel to what I seriously consider to be one of the greatest books I’ve read in my entire life, “The Meaning of Night”. The original novel is a thrilling, atmospheric and exceptionally clever revenge story, a bit like a Victorian era “The Count of Monte Cristo”. There have been few times when I’ve felt such seething anger on a character’s behalf and such loathing for the villains of the piece who, for the majority of the book, look to be getting away with their devious schemes. What made the story pretty much perfect though were two things: firstly, the author’s skill in keeping us rooting for the wronged protagonist even when his thoughts of retribution run to murder, and secondly the ending, which I won’t spoil but which packages everything up as neatly as a reader could ever hope for. And it’s the fact that the “The Meaning of Night” delivered such a flawlessly constructed story that made me so disappointed by the sequel. To start with, after the fist-pumping excellence of the novel’s conclusion I was a bit bemused as to why there would be a sequel at all, but what upset me most about “The Glass of Time” was that it pushed to revenge element of the story so far that it tipped past the point of keeping the reader on the side of the victim. Now, the man I’d been cheering for in the first book became so morally reprehensible that I just didn’t care about his thirst for supposed justice any more. I haven’t revisited “The Meaning of Night” since, but should I do so, I’m now in the slightly awkward position of having to somehow pretend the events that followed didn’t happen. Whether I’ll be able to do so successfully remains to be seen.
“Go Set a Watchman” was a similar kind of experience, although of course it differs in the (very important) sense that it wasn’t actually a follow on to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, but rather was a first, unsuccessful attempt at the now-famous story. Even knowing this, however, it was still a shock to spend time in the company of characters with whom I thought I was familiar only to find them altered, in some cases quite dramatically. Has it affected my reading of “To Kill a Mockingbird”? I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake the feeling now that the beloved characters of this great book are not actually how they first appeared in Harper Lee’s imagination when she started writing. Reading “Go Set a Watchman” is akin to witnessing the deliberation and decision-making that goes into writing a novel, and it turns out there’s a very good reason why we don’t normally get to see this stage of a writer at work – because it takes the magic of the finished article away. It proved an interesting talking point on publication to be sure, but all in all I think I’d be happier if I hadn’t read it.
Are there any books that have frustrated or disappointed you in this way? I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts!