Review: The Sympathizer

November 17, 2016 Uncategorized 10

Review: The SympathizerTitle: The Sympathizer
Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Source: Library
Links: Amazon|Indiebound |Goodreads
Rating: three-stars

Summary: I enjoyed the clever writing and fast-paced plot, but the ending got a bit surreal and a really terrible trope made me enjoy it much less.

This story is also a confession – the confession being written by the imprisoned narrator, relating his life as a double agent. Although he was evacuated to America after the Vietnam war ended, he is secretly reporting back to the communist leadership in Vietnam. He is also living a double life in other ways. As the child of a French soldier and a Vietnamese woman and as a communist who was educated in the United States, he’s never quite fit in with either world. Although he has already decided his loyalties, as he writes this story, he’s forced to come to terms with who he’s become.

I’m sorry for not having this labeled earlier – my review is a lot about the ending, so this does include spoilers.

I enjoyed this book as soon as I started reading because the writing was so good. On every page I wanted to save at least one sentence because it was so clever, typically in an ironic or darkly humorous way. About three-quarters of the way through, this felt like a four star read to me and I knew the ending could go make all the difference.

Unfortunately, although I expected the ending to blow me away based on the good things of heard about the book, that was not the case. First, the ending got very surreal. I sometimes felt the author was trying so hard to be deep and clever, he ended up saying nothing at all. What really ruined it for me though was the big reveal of a secret the main character was keeping from the characters reading his confession and, by extension, from the reader.

His big guilty secret is that he stood by while a woman was raped. We never learn any more about her. I don’t think we even learn her name. This woman and her horrific experience are a mere plot device explaining why the main character was holding things back. I cannot express to you how sick I am of this plot device in books and in movies. It’s lazy, it’s unpleasant to read or watch, and often frames the experience of a poorly realized female character as primarily important because it motivates a man. I’m done with it, although I don’t harbor any illusion that it will disappear anytime soon.

10 Responses to “Review: The Sympathizer”

    • DoingDewey

      I feel a little bad pushing people away from this one, because a friend who really loved it recommended it to me, but the ending trope was something I just cannot deal with any more. Despite the good bits, I really wouldn’t recommend it though, especially if the ending is enough to make you not want to pick it up.
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    • DoingDewey

      Until reviewing this book, I’ve not put into words how I feel about this trope, but it’s a bit reason I’m not a fan of Westerns. It seems like almost everyone Western I’ve watched begins with some version of this trope: something terrible happens to a woman we’ve only met through her relationship with the main character and this is important exclusively because it sets the hero on his course. And like you, I just can’t any more.
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  1. Susie | Novel Visits

    Thanks for your honest review. This is a book that has been on my list of books to read for a long time, but I keep passing on it. Looks like I’ve made the right choice. I think I’ll scratch this one off!

    • DoingDewey

      I feel a little bad knocking this one since it was recommended by a friend who really liked it, but honestly, I think that’s probably the right choice. The ending made me enjoy it much less and I can’t bring myself to recommend the book because of this plot device.

  2. Naomi

    I’m glad I read your review – I don’t mind having one less book on my to-read list. This makes me wonder if men are more likely to use this as a plot device in their books than women. Any thoughts on that?
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    • DoingDewey

      It seems likely to me that men would be more likely to write this plot device, but I definitely don’t have any facts on that. I actually mostly associate this device with Western films. I feel like they all begin with some variation on this theme.

    • DoingDewey

      I only realized reading these comments that I hadn’t marked it as a spoiler, so I’m sorry about that! I’m glad it was helpful for you to know that about the book though 🙂