Bad Book/Good Author

I’m sure this has happened to every reader at one time or another. It could be something as simple as a new book by a long time favorite author that turns out to be a huge disappointment. The story is too close to the previous stories; the principal character hasn’t learned anything from the earlier books in the series or makes a pivotal choice that upends the character you’ve come to know & love; or the author diverges so far from the books you love that it reads like something by an entirely new—and not very interesting—writer.

It could also happen to a reader when they “discover” a missing book by the author of a treasured masterpiece. Maybe it’s an awful early mystery by a writer who went on to write great fantasy novels? Maybe it’s just a dreadful experiment by an otherwise excellent storyteller? It happens…

I recently found myself pushing and plodding and yawning and shaking my head in frustration, as I trudged through the mountain of mud that is Mary Shelley’s ‘The Last Man’ with what felt like a heavy pack on my back. What was in the backpack? ‘Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus,’ of course—it cast an impossible shadow across any pleasure I might manage to unearth from ‘The Last Man.’

While Frankenstein inspired a sub-genre of books & movies, a descriptive term that is applied to all sorts of amalgams of mismatched pieces; and lives on as a phenomenal story in millions of imaginations, this other novel by Mary Shelley is a chore.

The opening holds great promise with the discovery of text in bits & pieces in a cave in Greece. The narrator in a distant, dystopian future informs the reader that he has pieced together the story from fragments in that he found in the prophet Sibyl’s cave. It’s a story about class & opportunity; power & democracy; romance & ambition; and a knot of talented, exceptional people, drawn together and pulled apart by class, opportunity, power, democracy, romance, and ambition.

In the first third of the book there’s a great deal of time spent in political debates and poetic idylls in the country, but instead of drawing me into the circle of friends, family, & lovers, I kept wondering about the relationships. Who in this mix was a faux Percy, a stand-in for Byron, a woman in the mold of Mary Wollstonecraft (the feminist icon & Mary Shelley’s mom), a philosopher like William Godwin, and so on?

Will I finish the slog through ‘The Last Man’? I’m not sure, but I have long plane ride in my near future so… Maybe.


  1. I spend the weekend of 3/24-25 at a Frankenstein Retreat (Indiana Humanities has a year-long “one state, one story” program honoring the book’s bicentennial with events throughout the year) and The Last Man was mentioned several times. One of the scholars noted that it’s “a bit of a slog” but that it was well worth reading (I think she said the final 1/3 is worth suffering for the first 2/3rds?) and that Shelley was heartbroken that the novel wasn’t better received in her day. I have owned a copy of The Last Man for several years now but have never gotten around to reading it. Maybe it’s time I try.

    • Candy Korman

      Give it a try!
      I stumbled upon are reference to it a few months ago while reading an article on an unrelated topic. Of course I immediately found it and downloaded it to my Kindle. Then the slogging began… Perhaps it will keep me occupied on that long plane ride?

      Mary’s life was so compelling and her circle of friends & relatives, too… She deserves second chances in my book.

  2. I’m ashamed to admit the only one of Mary Shelley’s works I’ve read is Frankenstein, but I may have to remedy that because The Last Man sounds like sci-fi. Which would make Mary Shelley the first sci-fi writer.
    Apologies, but I always saw Frankenstein as horror rather than sci-fi. In hindsight that was probably wrong. :/

    • Candy Korman

      I don’t know that I’d call The Last Man science fiction… it reads more like political & philosophical polemics. I’ll probably give it another try on the next airplane ride. Always a good time to read!