Review: The Eternal Wonder

20 Books of Summer 2018: Book 3

I’ve only read one other book by Pearl S. Buck and the difference in quality between The Good Earth and The Eternal Wonder is striking. When poking around the Internet, I learned this book was published posthumously under strange circumstances. Knowing this alleviates the guilt of not finishing it (I skimmed the second half) because I’d never have picked it up if I’d known. I don’t want anyone to publish my drafts when I’m dead, so I’d rather not read the unfinished works of others.

Beyond the questionable publishing issues, The Eternal Wonder is astonishingly bad. It follows Rann’s development from the Smartest Kid Ever into the Smartest Adult Ever. (There’s also a weird bit when he’s still in utero, but still special.) The plot points are a series of social interactions in which Regular People fawn over him and how super-exta-ultra-omg-special he is. This scene with him at age four sets the tone. He has just asked his mother for the definition of the word “intellectual” and she has said that his brain frightens her:

“What does my brain look like, Mama?”
“Like everyone’s, I guess—a wrinkly gray something.”
“Then why does it scare you?”
“You do ask such questions—” She broke off.
“But I have to ask you, Mama. If I don’t ask, I won’t know.”
“You could look in the dictionary.”
“Where is it, Mama?”
She put down her sewing then and led him to the library and to a big book open on a small table and showed him how to find words.
[…]
He listened and looked, absorbed and fascinated. This big book, then, was the source of all words! He had the key, he knew the principle!
“I won’t ever need to ask you again, Mama. I know now, all by myself.” (25-26)

The best part of Rann’s new friendship with the dictionary means the reader doesn’t have to weed through any more “what does this mean” moments. And he’s four! (Please don’t leave comments telling me that your extra-gifted kid said all this at age two while simultaneously rollerblading backwards and writing an opera.)

Much is made of Rann’s superior intelligence and how it naturally follows that he is alone, but this premise grates on me. Rann isn’t alone because he’s smart—he’s alone because he appears incapable of empathy or of feigning interest in another person. He buys into a false dichotomy that all interactions are either the height of intellectualism or meaningless. It would be one thing if Rann learned otherwise over the course of the novel, but the narration falls prey to the same obsequious Rann-worship that makes him and the supporting cast insufferable. Rann’s passive cruelty toward everyone that can’t keep up with him intellectually makes him a creature to be pitied. I don’t know why everyone falls over themselves to praise him.

How do the people in Rann’s life put up with him? I couldn’t manage all 288 pages of this book! He takes his college entrance examinations at 12 and soon after he’s miserable at school:

So far as he could discover, none of his classmates suffered as he did. He had no friends, for mere friendliness, and he was by instinct eagerly friendly, did not mean friendship. He felt, at times, that he was in a desert alone, a desert of his own making merely because he was as he was. He had long ago outgrown his mother and he had almost ceased to think of his father. He was totally absorbed in the problem of himself and what direction he should give himself. He lived in absolute loneliness for most of his time at college. (65)

Self-absorption isn’t an endearing quality even if Rann’s “self” is better than everyone else’s.

This book isn’t as well-written as The Good Earth, but Buck gets points for saying “[Rann] was totally absorbed in the problem of himself” instead of “in a great puff of pomposity, he vanished entirely up his own ass.” But that’s why she won the Nobel Prize for Fiction and I am a blogger.

Overall: No rating. I’m not convinced this book was “finished,” so how can I rate it? After The Good Earth, and given Buck’s status as a Nobel Prize winner, I’d still like to read more of her work.

Translation: Don’t read this.

Reviewed

  1. The Eternal Wonder by Pearl S. Buck
  2. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  3. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Read (**off-list replacements, oops)

  1. The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
  2. Embers by Sándor Marái
  3. **The Lost World by Michael Crichton
  4. **Stiff by Mary Roach
  5. Those Who Walk Away by Patricia Highsmith
  6. **The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  7. While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

Need to Finish/Read

  1. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  2. The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.
  3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  4. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  5. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
  6. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  7. The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
  8. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  9. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  10. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  11. Snow by Orhan Pamuk
  12. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
  13. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Note: Since I’ve read three books that weren’t on my list, three of the above will be bumped from the challenge-queue, but I’m not sure which…

4 Comments on “Review: The Eternal Wonder

  1. “Self-absorption isn’t an endearing quality even if Rann’s “self” is better than everyone else’s.” Love this.

    • Thank you! It frustrated me that so much of the book excused his behavior on the basis that he was more “valuable” than everyone else. The end was disturbing.

  2. Awesome review!! I totally agree with your opinion about unfinished works 🙂

    • Thank you! I was hesitant to be so critical since it’s unfinished, but there are places where it crosses the line from just being a bad book to offering a twisted message. The end was warped. I was going to mention it more in my review, but since I was skimming by that point there’s a chance I missed something that would have cushioned it. (Not sure what that something would be, but I’m not about to reread the book to find out!)

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