And how, exactly, is this different from “overrated?” I suppose there is a technical distinction: an overrated book is specifically one that failed to live up to its hype by other people, whereas a disappointing book failed to live up to your own personal expectations, even as they may differ from those of other readers.
Expectations, of course, are tricky little beasties. They can sneak into your mind’s eye in the wake of their even trickier cousins, assumptions. Some of them are reasonable and well-informed, but many are not. They feed on your wilder emotions and buried memories, especially when your most valiant guards – humility, caution, and perspective – are lax at the posts.
Actually, mine, for this book, are not so psychological. They were formed from its reputation as an adventure classic and from its film adaptation, which is also, in my opinion, an adventure classic of a minor sort. And, to be honest, I still like the book. It just was a very different book from what I was led to believe, and possibly, from what it had initially wanted to be.
I write of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.
The Three Musketeers had prepared me for Dumas’ rambling, serialized, paid-by-the-word narrative style, but in The Count of Monte Cristo it almost seems as if he is deliberately avoiding plot and excitement. As with Musketeers, he will start with an engaging scene to draw you in and paint an energetic picture of the setting. You will keep reading, waiting for the excitement and adventure to erupt before you and continue unabated until the end. You will wait. There will be lots of intrigue, but only the occasional flash of swashbuckling. Subplots will begin to arise one after the other, and soon every side character (of which there are many) will have their history explained to you in narration, and perhaps also a chapter or few to take you into their homes, their families, their businesses, and their secret dealings. You continue to read, expecting a larger plot to come, but mostly hoping for more of that swashbuckling of which you have got only a taste. The subplots continue, until you begin to realize that they are all fuzzy threads that are being clumsily entwined, as though a nine year-old has gotten hold of a weaving kit. Alarmed, you keep reading. Prospects of great adventure keep rising up, and then hiding themselves quickly. Emotions simmer as most characters refuse to act on them, families plot against each other, our hero doesn’t do much, there are parties and secret meetings and financial speculations, until suddenly a climax is formulated in which some bad fellows get a public humiliation, someone probably commits suicide, and our hero, who has not done much, goes off into a long-postponed happy ending that nonetheless feels a bit odd to the reader.
That’s the gist of it. It’s a soap opera, and like a soap opera The Count of Monte Cristo lacks focus. It starts splendidly and gets you excited about its premise. The famous story is this: Edmond Dantes gets betrayed by his best friend and sent to the dreaded island prison Chateau d’If, from which after many years he escapes, finds a wealth of buried pirate treasure, and returns to Paris with a new, fabulously powerful identity as the titular Count with the intention of ruining the lives of all who had a hand in his betrayal. Eventually, though, Dumas gets too involved in all his dozens of side characters, to the extreme detriment of his protagonist. Edmond barely appears in the latter half of the book, and as a result I never got to know him as well as I wanted. He is the most interesting character in the book by far, but Dumas never stays with him very long, instead splitting off into the lives of minor characters who ultimately are not that important or that interesting. Too many subplots clutter the pages, and most of them do not have a clear arc, that I could tell. You get lost in all the names and places and financial planning, until you’ve forgotten what happened five chapters ago and are completely lost when Dumas switches to continue another group’s story.
The worst criticism I can level at the majority of this book is that it is boring. Bogged down, stagnant, muddled.
There is, eventually, a climax involving the main plot and Dantes having the option of revenge. It is pretty good, but not nearly as exciting or satisfactory as I had hoped after the hundreds and hundreds of pages I’d read. And the ending, with Dantes sailing into the sunset with his lover, his young former servant (I forget her name), is meant to be happy, but it does not settle right for the modern reader. By this time Dantes is at least twice the age of the girl, and has a nurturing father-daughter relationship with her. She has pined after him for years, it is said, but his emotions for her are never convincing as love, just general gratitude for her friendship and service. So when he accepts her romantically and they sail off, it doesn’t feel right. He’s too old for her, and I’m not convinced he’s really in love with her. It was frustrating. I felt that both I and Dantes deserved better after suffering so much.
But hey, I still said I liked it, didn’t I? Well yeah. The basic plot is still a classic one, and there are flashes of great intrigue going on. It’s a darker book than The Three Musketeers, though, lacking Dumas’ sharp humor. Someday I may reread it, and maybe then I will discover a labyrinth of careful psychological character studies and intricate, purposeful themes. But when I read it, especially since it lacked the high adventure I had so hoped for, The Count of Monte Cristo disappointed.