Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: The Castle in the Pyrenees

The Castle in the Pyrenees
Slottet i Pyreneene
By Jostein Gaarder

First published: 2008
Read: 1-2 January 2011
Pages: 270

Through five intense years in the 1970s, Steinn and Solrunn had a happy life together. Then they suddenly parted ways, for reasons that are unclear to both. In the summer of 2007 they meet again on a balcony of an old wooden hotel by a fjord in western Norway. It is a place they both have fond memories from, and their meeting turns out to be fateful. But is it purely coincidental that they meet at that particular spot at that particular time? Over a couple of weeks that summer they write emails to each other, and it becomes clear that they have been living with very different interpretations of their shared past. THE CASTLE IN THE PYRENEES is both a love story and a novel of ideas, exploring the place of human consciousness in the universe. Its main theme is of great current interest: can science explain everything, or does some invisible force influence our lives? (Goodreads)

Just Not Enough Plot

Jostein Gaarder has been my favourite Norwegian writer, possibly my favourite writer ever, since I was a kid and got lost in the pages of The Solitaire Mystery for the first time. His YA novels are amazingly creative and exciting. The thing is, Gaarder is an intellectual; a modern philosopher. His adult books scare me to death. I am so intimidated by all the big thoughts and ideas and philosophising (is that even a word?). It makes me feel ... inadequate, sometimes even dumb. Yes, philosophy is a big part of Sophie's World, but there Gaarder manages to make it interesting and fun. So far I have not had much luck with his adult books, as they tend to go way over my head. Still, I picked this up from the library, confident that this time I would be able to follow his stream of consciousness. After all, I have three years of university, including a course in philosophy, under my belt now. Of course I could handle a grown-up Gaarder novel!

I was wrong.

"A novel of ideas" should have been my first clue, "exploring the place of human consciousness in the universe" the second. Remind me to pay proper attention to desciptions from now on.

There is no doubt that Gaarder is a very clever man, and his thoughts are very interesting, but to me this was simply too much. I found myself reading paragraph after paragraph and not understanding a word. Well, obviously I understood the words, but I completely failed to decode their meaning. Now, I should probably mention that I am generally not the smartest person in the room (except when I am the only person in the room), but I do enjoy a challenge now and then, and this book certainly was a challenge to me.

That being said, there was a real plot hiding underneath all the layers of philosophy, and like all of Gaarder's plots it was very interesting with some surprising twists along the way. These parts of the book I raced through, eager to find out what really happened between the two lovers, and these parts were the reason I finished the book. If the story of Steinn and Solrun had been the main focus and the various ideas and theories had been toned down, I would have liked it that much more. As it is, there simply was not enough story to hold my interest throughout the entire book.

I am hesitant to give this one a rating, because it would not be based on the quality of the book, but simply on my personal preference. Bearing that in mind, I am going to rate it 2 out of 6 stars for my own reference.

I know many readers wil enjoy the story of two estranged lovers meeting again by chance and starting up a correspondence discussing their different ideas, world views and the universe itself. If you are interested in intellectual topics, then I am sure you will like Gaarder. If you prefer to start with something a little lighter, I would recommend trying one of his YA books like Sophie's World, Through a Glass Darkly, The Orange Girl or my personal favourite, The Solitaire Mystery.

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