Book review: Sula by Toni Morrison

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Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.

It’s the early 20th century in The Bottom, and Nel and Sula are the best friends that have ever lived. They’ve grown up together, sharing all the same experiences, until Sula decides to head off to college while Nel decides to stay in The Bottom and start a family.  The two women reunite later in life, only to suffer a great betrayal due to Sula’s lack of understanding even the most basic of human decency.

I know that – objectively speaking – this book is very well-written.  I know that Morrison has a way with words that many authors can only hope to imitate.  I know that her books are American classics.  (I also know that she used to live a mere 1.2 miles from where I currently live, and that made me want to like her writing even more.)  But this book didn’t make me feel anything aside from mild discomfort.

Sula feels like a book you’d read in a college lit class, followed by an in-depth analysis of the imagery and actions of the characters.  It doesn’t feel like the kind of book you read as you wait to eat a holiday dinner with your boyfriend’s parents.  Unfortunately, that’s the exact context in which I finished this book, and that might contribute to me feeling less than thrilled with it.

While the plot is certainly interesting, the characters (particularly Sula) were so awful that I just didn’t want to read anything more about the horrors in their lives.  A surprising amount of terrible things happen in the 175 pages of this book, some of which I’m sure will stick with me for years to come.

And, as a feminist, I really want to understand Sula.  I really want to know just what she got out of sleeping with nearly every married man in town.  I want to find some point to it other than her being a generally horrible person.  And I can’t.  Because even Sula doesn’t have a good reason for it.  It makes her feel bad, so she does it?

I’ve read a lot of review of this book, both positive and negative, trying to really understand what I was supposed to get out of it.  I’m still not really sure.  So I’ve given it three stars, mostly for the writing, since the plot seems to have gone over my head.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

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