Reasons To Avoid A Beloved Classic Novel (For Now)

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) is a beloved novel that portrays poverty, class, and gender dynamics through the experiences of Francie Nolan, an 11-year-old girl when the story begins in 1912.

Or so I’ve been told. This is one of those novels that just about everyone I know read—and loved—when they were teenagers. But I never did.

I downloaded the e-book to my Kindle on December 17, 2012, but it just sat there as I grappled with my fear that I wouldn’t like it as much as my friends did. It’s kind of awkward to read a beloved classic for the first time two decades too late in life.

This week, I finally clicked it open, read Anna Quindlen’s Foreward, then abandoned the book.

Why?

These days, with my work seeping into the rest of my life, I’m cautious about how I spend my limited reading time. Quindlen’s eloquent, spoiler-laden Foreward made me think that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn just isn’t the right kind of literary entertainment for me.

The Foreward began with these decouraging words:

“As much as any other beloved book in the canon, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn illustrates the limitations of plot description. In its nearly five hundred pages, nothing much happens.”

She immediately qualified these words as being somewhat “inaccurate,” but the damage was already done. It’s hard to commit to 500 pages of “nothing much.”

With Quindlen’s second paragraph, my motivation to read the novel only continued to drop when she casually mentioned its portrayal of a “pedophile who grabs a little girl in the hall.” That’s not “nothing,” it’s more like “nothing I want to read for leisure.”

There are times when I’m able to read books that address serious and important topics, but this week, when I’m entirely focused on legal work related to sexual violence, I don’t want to go anywhere near this topic in my meager time off.** I guess I only want to read the type of material that Francie’s teacher demanded she write (as Quindlen mentioned in the Foreward): stories about “the beautiful and serene” rather than about “what she really sees around her.”

So, I’ll have to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at some other time.

For now, as I come up with alternative reading material, I’m just going to imagine myself here:*

anguilla

Have a beautiful and serene weekend!

____________________________________________________________

*Anguilla (my sister took the picture). To see more calming scenes, stop over at Donna’s Garden Walk Garden Talk.

**ETA: However, I have been able to include these themes in my own creative writing (such as in Two Lovely Berries). I use writing as a way of coping with the type of work I do.

48 thoughts on “Reasons To Avoid A Beloved Classic Novel (For Now)

  1. I see this is an old post – just looking through some of your previous work. This is definitely a worthwhile book that covers the life of a family over three generations, mostly through the eyes of a sensitive and intelligent young girl, Francie. While there is not your traditional action scenes (nothing blows up, not a lot of movement), there certainly is a great deal of plot as we learn about a family that is mostly in poverty in New York at the turn of the century. The focus of the book is on their fortunes rising and falling through decisions the individual characters make which affect their whole family for good or ill.

    However, it seems that this was recommended for preteen girls, and I would strongly disagree. In addition to the scene with the pedophile mentioned in your post, there is a great deal of sexual content, alcoholism, extreme poverty, and other very mature content. If you choose to read this with the girls in middle school, I would recommend pre-reading it so you are prepared for questions. I read it for the first time in high school and it definitely introduced me to new concepts (admittedly I was somewhat sheltered in middle school). It might be right for your girls but I would recommend at least waiting until puberty has set in and they have a solid understanding of what sex is (and maybe are aware of addictions, abortion, racism, etc.)

    1. I still haven’t found the right time to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in part because it’s now buried on my shelf. I appreciate the reminder and your advice to read it before my children do. I usually don’t mind books that present challenging or controversial topics if they encourage discussion. Thank you!

  2. I have read three of your posts so far and enjoyed them–both for what you have to say, and your direct, clear style of how you say it. In this post, I agree. I have chosen to not re-read books when themes were grim, and there are books I disagree with reviewers and other parents about in that I feel they are NOT age-appropriate for their intended audience. Charlotte’s Web traumatized me as a 1st grader–I should have been older. Bridge to Terabithia is NOT okay for a fourth or fifth grader, in my opinion.

    Separate topic: I would want someone to tell me this: The word “foreword” has a common misspelling here by you and others as “forward”, and there is, not a misspelling, but a typo (looks like you were tired when you typed this one) of “decouraging” for “discouraging”. (I would appreciate it if you deleted this comment, or at least edited out this part of it, for who likes to look like a picky so-and-so? 🙂 )

  3. I Read ATGIB for the first time when I was twelve, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it since, and my eighth-grade daughter just read it for summer reading. I’m actually kind of mad at Ms. Quindlen for writing this forward that is turning so many people off. This is a coming-of-age story, it’s beautifully written, and it’s a vivid portrayal of the immigrant experience in America. How can any young girl or woman not identify with Francie? How can anyone not love the weak and charming Johnnie Nolan? I wonder if reading this when your girls are eleven, the same age as the protagonist, might be a better time for you? Thanks for getting a discussion going of one of my favorites!

    1. I think you’re right that I’ll probably enjoy reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the most around the time my girls are reading it. I’m certainly going to suggest it to them when they’re around 11-14. It sounds like a wonderful book for children that age. I wish I had read it back then.

      Thanks for the comment!

    1. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when you finally read it. I’m hoping I’ll find the right time to read it too. I haven’t given up on it just yet!

      1. So much of it really is about finding the perfect time to read it for you. And that scene with the child predator, I don’t even recall it having that much importance, unless I glossed over it after I finished.

  4. Pingback: Correcting a Kindergarten Deficit (As Requested By An Almost-First Grader) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  5. Breathing in Fiction

    I had a similar experience with this novel a few years ago. It just felt very blasé to me. I definitely think that some books require us to be in a particular frame of mind in order to appreciate them, however, in this case I’m pretty sure that I won’t go back to it because like you pointed out, my leisure reading time can be put to better use on my ever growing TBR list. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I really should spend a little more time on reducing my TBR list! I probably will try A Tree Grows in Brooklyn again someday, but it might take me another couple of years. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I haven’t read it either and I have half a dozen copies since it was THE gift to give me the year I moved to Brooklyn. Someday I’ll read it, but I’m with you on saving certain types of books till you’re in the mood for them, especially when time is limited!

    1. Your comment really made me laugh! If I can’t avoid recommendations of this novel when I live in Philadelphia, I can’t even imagine how often it must come up when you actually live in Brooklyn! Did you keep all of the copies?

  7. That sounds like a very frustrating forward! I usually try to avoid them until the end for that exact reason. Who wants the story ruined before they read it?!?

    I would argue that things certainly happen in that book but it’s good to know what you are in the mood to read.

    1. Yeah, I really couldn’t believe the Forward. Quindlen was writing it for nostalgia readers, but there certainly wasn’t any sort of indication that there would be so many spoilers. I will revisit A Tree Grows In Brooklyn someday. Now just isn’t the right time for me.
      I hope you had a great weekend!

    1. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who hasn’t read it (I often feel like I am, based on how often it’s recommended to me!). I hope you had a nice weekend!

  8. This book can be very heavy. It does contain a lot of painful memories and and experiences. I have always loved it for its honesty. If the right time comes for you to read it, I hope you find something valuable there. If not, I’m sure the author would rather you pass on reading it than suffer through it.

    1. Yeah, the Forward really didn’t “sell” A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s a beloved classic, but now just isn’t the time for me to experience it.

      I hope you had a nice weekend!

  9. I have not read this book, but I struggle with buying too many books on my kindle. I find a book, purchase it, and think I will get around to it. I have three books that my kindle tells me are read through by 11%, 42%. and 24%! I am like I really need to get those percentages up! It is funny too because I gravitate toward older books. I have one that was written in the 1930’s. by Rebecca West-Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I keep promising myself YOU NEED TO FINISH THIS ONE. Oh well, I suppose I will one of these days.
    Alesia (The Slow Reader )

  10. I feel like I should read this book some day, but if I had read that forward, I probably would have decided to put the book away too. Time is so precious and there are so many good books out there! I hope you find something fun to read.

    1. “Time is so precious and there are so many good books out there! I hope you find something fun to read.”

      Exactly! Unfortunately, none of the books I have are appealing to me right now, but I’ve been filling the time by reading books with my kids. It’s fun. 🙂

  11. I hope someday you come back to it, because like many other people, I read it in high school and to this day have that copy highlighted and worn. It’s one book I go back and quote through out life. I think you are right about the timing of the read though. I actually don’t remember the sexual abuse in it, which is something I feel like I would have remembered (but perhaps I’ve just blocked that bit out possibly). You’ve actually made me want to go back and read this favorite of mine and see if I still take away what I did before. I recently trucked painfully through “Slaughterhouse Five” and didn’t care for it, mainly I think because I need more uplifting books at the moment rather than “so it goes” cynicism. Timing really is everything with books. Hope you find a more desirable read soon!

    1. I wish I had read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was in high school! I was more tolerant of certain themes–as upsetting as they always were to me–back then than I am now. I was a different type of reader, one who reads to understand the world instead of one who reads to escape it (as I do now).
      I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t like Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s one of my favorite novels. Then again, I read it during those impressionable teenage years.
      Thanks for stopping by!

      1. I feel so guilty to not have liked Slaughterhouse Five as much as I wanted to, especially because I thought it was brilliantly written! Which was probably why I still finished it even though it wasn’t really satisfying my reader needs at the time.

  12. SF

    That sounds like a strange forward! I wouldn’t dismiss the book entirely because of it, but it sounds like you haven’t abandoned it forever. Just for now. That makes sense.

  13. I’ve never read it, and never had the inclination to read it. Now, I can confirm that status. Nothing anyone here has said has inclined me to want to read it. I read for enjoyment, and I rarely find sexual abuse enjoyable. I like a well-written story as well as the next person, but the world is too much present with murders, wars and war crimes, and misogynistic legislation in the heartland, for me to find solace in such a book. Give me a book not haunted by the world today, and I may read it. But not this one.

    1. I read for enjoyment too. I appreciate novels that address serious topics (and I incorporate these types of themes in my writing–in a way that is palatable to me), but there is a time and a place for it. It’s just not the right moment for me to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  14. I remember the cover of the book, but not what was in it. Either I didn’t read it, I started and abandoned it, or I read and forgot it. That happens sometimes. 😦

    I know what you mean about having little time to read. Same here, and when I do, I want to be totally absorbed in the story. I’ve tried to read so many books lately (not yours yet!) that, despite glowing reviews, were poorly written, poorly edited, or simply failed to capture my attention. I’m tempted to pick up the Hobbit again, as I haven’t read it in years, and I always, always enjoy that tale. Sometimes, a book serves as comfort food, filling up my mind rather than my stomach. 😉

    1. The Hobbit is also on the list of beloved classics I’ve never read! I really should read it, but I’m worried that I just won’t enjoy it as much as a first time reader at my age. It’s a genre I was more likely to read when I was a teenager.

      As for Two Lovely Berries, thanks again for your support with it! It means a lot to me that you think enough of my writing on this blog to even download it (whether you get around to reading it or not; I would understand if it isn’t the type of novel that appeals to you).

      I hope you had a nice weekend!

      1. Oh, I plan to read it. I like your writing here and I’m interested to see how it translates to fiction. And while reading about kids isn’t my first choice, I bet you made it interesting enough to capture my attention. 🙂

  15. “Nothing much happens” seem to me a bizarre thing to say about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, It’s only ‘nothing much’ if all of the events of people’s lives are ‘nothing much’!

    Why do they put forwards and introductions full of spoilers at the beginning of books? Shouldn’t they be afterwords if they can’t help writing about everything that happens?

    1. Quindlen backtracked from those words, but the Forward really didn’t “sell” the book. It definitely shouldn’t have been located at the very opening of the book. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you had a nice weekend!

  16. I read this last year and the writing is some of the most beautiful ever published. You’ll be missing out if you abandon it. I, personally, avoid all forewords and explanations as I trust my own judgement first. I would happily compare my thoughts after I finished reading but not before.

    I would suggest you let the beauty of the book speak for itself. You’re not reading the Da Vinci Code here, not everything needs to be plot-driven.

    1. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. You raise fair points, but whether a potential reader is “missing out” depends more on his/her personality and preferences than on the qualities of the book. I am a plot-oriented reader, which is why I disliked Erin Morgenstern’s atmospheric The Night Circus when so many others loved it. I appreciate prose and atmosphere. However, for me, those qualities aren’t enough to carry a book with a weak plot. I strongly suspect that I would’ve loved A Tree Grows In Brooklyn if I had read it when I was in my early teens, back when I had a higher tolerance for meandering stories because I identified with the young female leads. It’s different now.
      Thanks for the comment!

  17. Jaclyn

    I read A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, not as a teenager, but it has been quite a few years. I did really enjoy it, but there’s a time and a place for a particular book. It sounds like this isn’t the time and place for Francie right now, in your life. I hope you find the perfect book to replace it this weekend!

    1. Hi Jaclyn! Yeah, I don’t think this is the right time for me to “meet” Francie. I wish I had read this one when I was a teenager, back when I was more likely to identify with her than I am now. The plot wouldn’t have been as important as it is to me now.

  18. Thank you for the shout out! Your sister’s photo is beautiful making me wanting to hop on a plane right now. I was surprised to read that anyone would write that opening line in the Forward of the book, let alone the author. I would have not read a book that “nothing much happens” either. Even the title did intrigue me.

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