christie At the moment I’m reading The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie, but I stopped, because I was so embarrassed at a main character’s actions. Do you know this phenomenon? You read a novel about a character you generally like and admire, and at some point the character acts in a way that makes you feel deeply embarrassed on his or her behalf. When this happens, I am usually pulled out of my reading, and often the book languishes for days, even weeks or months on my bedside table before I pick it up again, if ever. So feeling embarrassed about otherwise likable characters can be a serious hindrance to my enjoying a book.

In the case of The Secret Adversary, it’s like this: The hero and heroine are unofficially employed by a government agency to find a vanished girl with vital information. In the course of the investigation, the hero follows a suspect and disappears; whereas the heroine accepts a job of housemaid with a lady who’s also a suspect. In this position, she receives a mysterious warning from an attractive, distinguished lawyer and politician who is one of her lady’s visitors. When her partner doesn’t return, she decides to visit the lawyer and reveal her mission to him, in the hope that he may assist her. I have read The Secret Adversary before, and I have always cringed during this scene, but never so much as this time. While Tuppence, the heroine, is desperate to find Tommy, her partner, the man she turns to, however eminent he may be, is a friend of a suspect, who is a rather nasty personage at the same time, and in my eyes, this disqualifies him from being someone to unburden to. (Mind you, the scene may well work for other readers.) So I am embarrassed for Tuppence, who is otherwise clever and resourceful and to be admired by a reader.

It’s this same reason why I found it so hard to finish The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig. Don’t get me wrong: There was loads to love about the book. I adored the setting (both settings, actually), the plot, the characters. The style was amusing, and the pace fast. I also mostly liked the heroine: Amy is courageous, resourceful, and loyal. Unfortunately, she is also obsessed with helping the famous British agent the Purple Gentian, and several times I had to put the book aside because Amy’s almost brutal single-mindedness in pursuing her goal made her act to far outside all considerations of both manners and reason that it just made me squirm. And that from a character I otherwise liked! Amy’s impetuousness was necessary for the plot, I realize this, but I still found it painful to read.

When too many characters behave in a way that makes me blush for them, I stop reading entirely. This is the reason I stopped watching Desperate Housewives, and have never taken to a daily soap. To keep the multiple plotlines going, all characters have to behave as self-destructively as they can, on a regular basis, or leave the show. I know. But I can’t stand watching it.

Are you sometimes embarrassed about the way otherwise likable characters behave, and has this spoilt the reading (or watching) experience for you a bit? Have you put books aside for good for this reason? Or what are your reactions to this situation?

– Rike Horstmann