Do Men & Women Read Alike?

Last week I read two books, one by a man and one by a woman. Both were great books but very different. Not only were they written by different genders they appeared to be written for different readers. Do men and women read alike? Do they read for different reasons?

Here are my reviews of the two books. Then we’ll discuss.

Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is set on the coast in Australia and at first glance is a comedic chick lit novel in the Bridget Jones vein. Her main characters are mostly married women with children, and the story centers on an elementary school charity event and the parents whose children attend the school. But there is so much more to this novel. It explores the various ways women live their lives, their choices in men, the way they raise their children. The undercurrent here is domestic abuse and rape which elevates this novel into a serious story examining the ways we hurt each other. Moriarty weaves all this together with the story of a death, a possible murder and its cover-up, through the use of many voices, police reports, and family events. Brilliantly done, funny, moving, and real.

C.J. Box’s Blue Heaven is set in the panhandle of Idaho, near the Canadian border. Box is from Wyoming and the influence of his usual setting is apparent. This stand-alone thriller features ex-LAPD cops who retire to their “blue heaven” in the woods. His rugged westerner, Jess Rawlins, a local rancher and the protagonist, is more cowboy than is normally found in this area. It is fictionalized as ‘Kootenai Bay’ but is obviously Hayden Lake or more likely Sandpoint where in reality there are more tamaracks than cows. Blue Heaven is a straightforward story where the only real question is who will end up dead. The shoot-out at the finale has overtones of old westerns, the tough cowboy who just keeps on coming, righting all the wrongs in a way he summons up from the depths of his being. Great writing and some sensitive stuff, mental illness, broken families.

As you can see one of these books is written for women, one for men. The appeal of Big Little Lies is the exploration into women’s lives. The theme of rape and abuse is unlikely to appeal to male readers but is not done hysterically. The men in the novel are varied, well-rounded, all different. Even the ex that Madeleine hates turns out to be sympathetic. Immature and awful back in the day but now just trying to do his best. The bad guy is a not a surprise but shows that money doesn’t make you happy or normal. There are few cliches here, and thank god for that.

The women in Blue Heaven are not as roundly portrayed. The cast is mostly male, lots of ex-cops, cowboys, and locals. One woman is a silly caricature of the busy-body, another is the “whore with a heart of gold.” The two children whose actions start the story are done well, especially twelve-year-old Annie, a tough little nut. But mostly this is a book about men, for men. It’s a morality tale where the only bad guy who regrets his actions takes his own life in remorse, leaving behind his wife and three kids without a thought. Where pride and greed make men act stupidly. Where the weak are punished and the strong and silent rewarded. I enjoyed the book, don’t get me wrong, there was just little to hang on to here.

For a female reader I think the writer needs to help her make an emotional connection to a character in the story. Do men read for that connection? Some do, I’m sure, but maybe it’s not as important to them. While I felt sorry for Jess Rawlins — and he certainly feels sorry for himself — I didn’t connect emotionally with him. Nobody in the story connects with him. His redemption at the end is that somebody cares about him. Finally. He is the classic loner: morose, fatalistic, and unforgiving. Now that I think of it, he is like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, where he plays a caricature of his earlier roles. I loved that movie but, as Vincent Canby says in the New York Times, it “pays homage to the great tradition of movie westerns while surreptitiously expressing a certain amount of skepticism.”

But, hey, men love that shit, right? 🙂 The joy of fiction is that there are many levels at which to read a story: the surface, the deep, and in-between.

What’s your level?

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