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20Jul

Reader Review: "Utopia Avenue"

by Reid B.: I want to go on record as being a David Mitchell fan. I believe that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, and Cloud Atlas are all brilliant books. So, when I was offered an advance copy of Utopia Avenue, I was thrilled and couldn't wait to read it. What a disappointment awaited me.

The basic plot is a bit of a cliche: we follow a rock band from their inception in the gleaming eye of a manager, who brings together four seemingly disparate talents into a group which, inevitably, becomes very successful. Herein lies the first problem I had with this novel: this process is, I'm sure, very moving and fascinating to someone directly involved, but to the reader it is all rather dull. How many different ways can you describe the bass player putting down a funky beat, the lead guitarist ripping off an amazing riff, and so on? Not many, I guarantee you.

The era involved is the late 60s, and the scene is rock in both Great Britain and the United States, so naturally famous names show up. Oddly, though, none of them are truly vibrant characters in this story, so their inclusion seems more like name-dropping than anything else. True, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, and Jerry Garcia have a few meaningful lines, but others, including John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and a whole host of others, are merely there to preserve a bit of verisimilitude, but add nothing, which is a shame.

Still, Mitchell is a very talented writer and he has created extremely likeable characters here, so I was willing to go along with the novel to a point (though I was thinking it overlong and in need of editing). There are also a couple of subplots involving, respectively, homosexuality and psychosis (don't worry, these are not spoilers) that have some passing interest, though the supernatural involvement with the insanity plot seems a bit out of place here; still, not truly objectionable (and a neat tie-in to a previous Mitchell novel). So far, so good.

But let me not mince words. I hated the ending. Hated, hated, hated it. Have I made myself clear? Loathed. Detested. Abhorred. Despised. Abominated. Until the ending, I was willing to go along and think of this as a perfectly acceptable three-star read, which to me is a book worth your time, but not worth going out of your way to read. The fact that I could hate the ending as much as I do and still give this two stars is a testament to Mitchell's raw skill. How unfortunate that he chose an emotionally manipulative ending that does not match in any way with the arc of the story he established to that point. Oh, I am aware that he can do whatever he wishes with his characters, and he is welcome to do so, but as a reader I have every right to object, and I do. Give this a miss.

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