Review: The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow is about many things I like to read about: encounters with alien cultures, close-knit groups of friends, Catholicism, colonization, sin and forgiveness and whether God has a plan.  Basically, some people on earth in the nearish future discover that there are aliens not far from Earth, and they go on a Mission to meet the aliens and learn their languages and all about them.  The book opens shortly after the last surviving member of the mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, has been returned to earth amidst much ado and scandal about the way the mission ended; and the narrative goes back and forth between the current time, with various Catholics trying to make Sandoz talk about what happened, and the time of planning and preparing for and going on the mission to the aliens.

I bought The Sparrow for either fifty or twenty-five cents at the book fair last year, and then I didn’t read it and I didn’t read it, and I would have listed it on PaperbackSwap and been rid of it ages ago, except the cover and spine were all creased.  So I brought it with me this summer, thinking I could read it at last and discard it.  And then, see, then, Bybee said how satisfying and amazing she found it to write in the margins of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I thought, hey, this book’s all beat up anyway, I will try a new experiment and write in the margins.

The results were – mixed.

Good result: I thought of things while I was reading, as one does, and instead of forgetting them at once, I wrote them down.  Not brilliant observations or anything!  Just responses to things the writer had said, and usually because I disagreed, but it did give me a pleasing sense that I was being intellectually stimulated the way you are supposed to be when you read, and having something (scribbled margin remarks) to show for it.  For instance, this:

The mission, he thought, probably failed because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time.  Like most colossal disasters.

I think this passage is just in there to sound profound at the end of a chapter.  Because in fact I do not think that most colossal disasters happen for this reason.  That is giving people way too much credit.  Most colossal disasters happen because are people are shabby, so they cut corners, and one day they turn around and found they have cut the wrong corners and too many of them and too close together, and a colossal disaster has resulted.  Which, by the way, leads me to:

Bad result: I got way critical.  I wrote down stroppy margin comments like “Really?” about D.W.’s accent, and “hate hate hate phrases like this” about “when her body was used” (seriously, I hate phrases like that), and “rarely enhances a line of dialogue” next to the word “conversationally”.  I was critical about individual words and phrases, and critical about the pacing of the plot, and critical about stylistic choices.  Put a pen in my hand while I am reading, and I feel like editing.

Good result: I engaged very strongly with the characters.  Though that might just have been that Mary Doria Russell wrote a set of strong characters, and managed, although there were a bunch of them, to create a solid group dynamic.  Inevitably, some characters were explored more thoroughly than others, but I felt like I had a handle on all of them.

Bad result: I engaged very strongly with the characters, and then they all died except for one.  (That isn’t spoilers, you find it out like three chapters in.)  They all died!  It was such a bummer.  I read the end early on, to find out how everyone died, so I wouldn’t have to keep worrying about it, and the end was extremely unhappy.  Also (and I cannot stress this enough) (and this is spoilers, even though you would probably figure it out your own self) I do.  Not like.  Sexual.  Violence.

Like I said, mixed results.

Here’s the problem with trying reading experiments: There’s no control!  I have no idea what I’d’ve thought of this book if I hadn’t written in the margins, AND I have no way of finding out.  As it is, I thought it was very well-written, had some point-of-view problems, and it was way intense.  I do not have the wherewithal to read the sequel right away.  Should I read it anyway, at some point?  Do you think colossal disasters happen because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions all of which seemed like a good idea at the time?  Have you found margin-writing improves your reading experience?

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Semicolon
The 3 Rs Blog
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Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books
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