2013 Shortlisted: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton #3

The_Luminaries_USRating: 3 (3.5)
The Luminaries
A Novel by Eleanor Catton
2013 / 848 Pages

Over on the Literary Hoarders site, you may have noticed on our side bar to your right that what I was “Currently Reading” was The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. It must have been showing I was “currently reading” it for well over a month, perhaps longer. For me, straight up and honest, it certainly felt like I was chained to this book for many, many months. Indeed, I easily and readily found a great number of times to put it aside and read other books all the while, four (4!) to be exact, and contemplated two others.

There is absolutely no contested doubt that The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton’s is a very ambitious and exquisitely written novel. There is no doubt it is stunning in its descriptive and delightful characterization. Yet, perhaps this is also its greatest flaw, perhaps it is too ambitious in its excessive description or for tying characters and their story to an obscure astrological calendar that I honestly did not care enough to research to see how it fit with this intricately written historical mystery (ex. what or how “Sun in Capricorn” fits). More than likely it is due to its excessive length and excessive descriptions of every thing, every one. My enjoyment continuously waned as I increasingly felt more like I was being “forced” to read it for our BookerMarks project. I’m certain I would have abandoned this one long, long before had I been reading it more for my leisure. Truthfully, The Luminaries was something I had looked forward to before its inclusion in the Man Booker Prize Longlist (& Shortlist) announcement(s).  But just as truthfully, it also became something I wished to abandon on more than one occasion. (Obviously, as I was able to ease in four other books in between.) It was too easy for me to put aside and read just this one here, and well, now this one has popped up, and oh! look I can read this one too!

By the time I hit Part Two I was exhausted and aghast to realize I still had 425 pages to slog through. And it was at this point that I truly stopped forcing myself to pretend and keep up any pretense I was enjoying this. I did complete it, I did read it. It was painful. But I did it. I gave up repeating to myself that yes, this was so good I so completely agree it’s wonderful! Up to a point I was enjoying it but only because of its richly and classically composed narrative. Yet, there is only so long I could hold to that. I began to resent this novel with a passion knowing that I still had the equivalent of approximately two-books-worth more of reading to do in order to reach completion.

While the definite pros of the book lay in her beautiful, beautiful prose and the synopsis of events at the start of every chapter that leads to her slow reveal (with incredible attention to every detail) of each of those events. There was not one detail that was left unnoticed or described, not one fold of a pocket, one glance of an eye, not one size, shape, texture of their mutton chop. Beautifully detailed. Yet…..after 326 pages of reading about those folds, colours, textures, appeals of the suit or dress they are wearing starts to wear you down. Certainly, it did for me.

Did I mention it’s too long? I’ve read door-stoppers before, but I haven’t felt the anxiety and drudgery with those that I felt with this one. In the context of The Luminaries, it is definitely too long and padded down with more filler than necessary. I started to read the reviews on Goodreads (likely I was thinking it would be a way to cheat and see if the mystery was solved in 250 words or less!)  and many mentioned that it could easily have been cut short 250 pages. I couldn’t agree more. What a tremendous slog this became. What also stung was the slip from two of our BookerMarks bloggers in saying the ending was a bit of a letdown. Seriously? So you’re telling me now that I’m suffering through this only to become even more disappointed with its end? All of these points I could not get out of my head and it certainly hindered any attempt at enjoyment of it for any longer (and, so you know, to say the ending was a “bit”of a letdown is a gross understatement in my opinion).

For me, The Luminaries sits firmly between the 3-star and 3.5-star rating. “Good, recommend with reservations” to “Very good”. Very good for the obvious beautiful, descriptive and classical prose but recommend this with strong reservations due to the sheer investment of time required to read through this tome to its end and because that investment of time results in an abysmal ending. In terms of winning the Man Booker Prize? It’s not my choice, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a thing. For myself, I’m just so delighted I finally reached the finish line. Whew!

This will be published simultaneously on the Literary Hoarders.


  1. That reminds I still have the second 400 pages of Hilary Mantel’s a Place of Greater Safety to read, having seen her win the prize I decided to read the book I had on the shelf and have got no further with any of her books after that stall.

    With long books like these, one needs a holiday in order to have periods of immersion, in the ordinary course of life, it’s very difficult to stay with such a long book unless it has pace, which usually doesn’t make it a contender for a literary prize.

    1. hi Claire – thanks for commenting. Yes, I agree and have spent a fair amount of time thinking about this book following the posting of my review. I struggled with this one, and knowing that 2 of my fellow BookerMarks crew loved it gave me pause while I was wrestling with my emotions over it (really not liking it all that much the further I got in to it). However, I was considering that we are all considerable readers here. To tackle this book wasn’t an issue, however I think for an average reader The Luminaries may be passed upon due to its size. It takes a considerable investment of one’s time to get through. Also, the more I think of it, the desire to read a book shouldn’t mean I need to set out researching a thesis assignment at the same time. The Luminaries is a very clever book, but in addition to the super-filler inside is the (perhaps unnecessary?) framing of it around astrology. I didn’t want to be researching the meanings and the framing of it at the same time as I’m trying to read through it (for pleasure). Know what I mean? It will be interesting to see if this does take the prize, although Mantel’s book last year also had some heft to it.

      1. I wonder about the astrological significance and whether that is more of a plaything for the writer, to scope out a framework from the beginning, to use an existing tool to fall back on for characterisation.

        I haven’t read the book, but imagined that might be something I wouldn’t pick up on in the ordinary course of reading, it is something a critical reader, a more academic reader might be looking out for, like cryptic clues, but as you allude to, it can create something of a chore for a reader who has become aware of its significance and can no longer read the book on a superficial level.

        I will read the book, but due to it’s length, it may have to wait until next summer, which is the only time I can face the challenge of such a mammoth tome.

        Thank you for the comprehensive reply.

        I see Lahiri has just been nominated for the US National Book Award and ironically in the article on HuffPost they mention being inspired by the Man Booker format.

  2. I’ve heard quite a few of really mixed reviews for The Luminaries. It’s too bad, because I was really looking forward to it. I loved her last book. There is no doubt in my mind that she is a great writer, but to be able to sustain a book for so many pages is a difficult task. Too much verbosity can be a real problem. I plan to review it in mid October if all goes as planned, but I am getting bogged down in a number of Fall releases this year.

    1. Hi Tanya, there is no doubt the writing inside is gorgeous. It’s also extremely clever. I too was looking forward to reading this before it hit the Longlist. So I thought- bonus! Yet, had I had a physical copy of the book I think I would have tossed it against the wall a number of times due to my sheer frustration with it and definitely had put it through the window when I reached that ending. I think having a reader sit and require that investment of time and then end it the way it did was, for me, an incredible disappointment. There are So Many doorstoppers in the Fall releases this year. I am still looking very forward to reading those however, I just hope they keep me sustained for the whole time. 😉 They are all on hold for me at the library – let’s hope they don’t come in all at once!! 😉

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