It happened with Anna Karenina, again with Brothers Karamazov, finally with Fathers and Sons: read the book, was worried the other WORD Classic book-clubbers were wholeheartedly into it and I'd be the odd one out. And for the third time, nope--we were all in puzzled agreement. But this wasn't the frustration we felt with AK, or the irritation we found in BK, just a certain gentle bemusement. I'm not sure what to make of Fathers and Sons. It's not a bad book at all; I didn't not like it; I didn't like it either. I have a near-perfect neutrality towards it, in fact.
As the title suggests, it's largely concerned with intergenerational conflict, at a particularly crucial time in Russian history (then again, I can't think of any non-crucial times in Russian history. "Volatile" is putting it mildly)--right before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The sons are self-styled nihilist ("Sounds exhausting") Yevgeny Bazarov and his naive hanger-on Arkady. These kids were hilarious, let me tell you: completely recognizable as early-twenties reject-everything quasi-philosophers. Yet while Turgenev is clearly smirking at their earnestness, he's got a nostalgic affection for them as well, which saves the satire from being mean-spirited.
But while the characters are sharply observed, they're not emotionally compelling. That's more or less the issue we had with the book: it just didn't engage us, for good or ill. Stephanie wonders--brilliantly, I think--if much of our shared trouble with these 19th-century Russian novels is simply having readers' brains attuned to modern English-speaking fiction, which is constructed so differently as to be an entirely different mental experience. It is, essentially, hard for us to read. This is definitely a factor: all three of the novels mentioned above contain unnecessary scenes, operatic melodrama, digressions into philosophical argument, and little concern with character development or kinetic prose. Of course, these are not bad things! Nor, obviously, necessary for The Novel as Form. Still, it goes a long way towards explaining why we didn't have much to say about these books. The mere practice of reading them, though, is flexing literary muscles little used, and can only make us better readers. Thanks, WORD, for giving us this opportunity! Best book club I've ever been in.