As an English teacher, I am depressed to read that an author's having access to a sophisticated vocabulary is a drawback. Yet Shirley Hazzard's novel is an old-fashioned book--despite her elliptical style--for though the book is slender, the characters are fully rendered, and the theme of the novel--the absurdity and necessity of having a personal life in light of the destructive forces of war and politics--comes through clean and clear. There is so much mean-spiritedness in some of the reviews that it is difficult to know what to address first. Ben and Helen are old beyond their ages, first, because they read deeply and widely; second, because of the coldness of their family which has made it necessary for them to turn inward to books and to each other; and, third, because Ben is dying (look up the age at which Keats was writing his wonderful poetry or a biography of Sylvia Plath). Apparently, too, not one of the negative reviewers has ever actually been in love. One suspects that they took resumes from prospective mates! This story is also particularly poignant as a reminder of the cost of war.
I think reviewers and critics often miss the role taste plays in our evaluations of books. What I would like to see, in reading as in life, is a touch more humility before discouraging someone else from reading a book. I can't imagine that everyone associated with the Book Critics Circle is illiterate, despite the accusations of some of Amazon's reviewers. I thought Hazard's novel a beautifully written, fully realized novel and was disappointed to come to the end of it. However, I must confess that often, I don't get Borges. Does that make those that find his work valuable wrong? Is my denseness Borges' fault or my own?
Unfortunately, many of the reviewers remind me of (a few of) my eighteen-year-old students--oh, the weight of so much critical accumen and the wonder of being an age at which everyone is "stupid" except, perhaps, oneself. I'm sorry some of the readers were disappointed. Perhaps they should stick with the classics, and thereby not have to feel diminished by reading (gasp!) a love story (despite the number of love stories in classical literature, it is some comfort to read what is already vetted) or with the quick reads that do not demand much of the reader. There is nothing wrong with either approach to reading, only with trashing what one has not taken the time to understand or perhaps does not have an affinity for.