Great (But Wrong) Expectations had the very weird experience this past week of reading a book and realizing, close to the end, that this book was not about what I thought it was about after all.

The fault is my own. While I’m an avid reader of book reviews, I do tend to shy away from reviews of books that I know I plan to read. I’m a spoiler-phobe, you see. I’ve often started reading a review, only to get a few paragraphs in and realize, “ooh, this sounds like a book for me!” and immediately stop reading the review. I just don’t want to know anything in advance, thank you very much.

And so, after inexplicably waiting a year past the publication date, I finally read Doc by Mary Doria Russell this past week – and while I loved it and thought it was fascinating (and will write a review in the next couple of days), it wasn’t the book I expected it to be.

Mary Doria Russell is the author of The Sparrow, a book I love passionately. She’s basically one of my “free pass” authors – so good, and with such a winning streak with me, that I’ll automatically read anything she writes, whether or not the subject matter is in one of my usual areas of interest.

Such was the case with Doc. A Western, for me? Written by any other author, the answer would be no. But in this case, I just had to read it.

I admit to being rather ignorant of the Western genre, and my knowledge of historical figures from the “Wild West” era is woefully shallow. So yes, I’d heard of Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and the OK Corral, but couldn’t tell you much of anything about them. Doc Holliday – some sort of gunslinger? An outlaw, maybe? Good on a horse? I’ve never even watched “Tombstone”. Shows you how much I knew about the historical events and people in Doc before I picked up the book.

And of course, being this unprepared, I expected to read more or less a biography of Doc Holliday, culminating in the big gunfight at the OK Corral. It wasn’t until I was about 50 or 60 pages from the end that I realized, “Wait a minute! There’s no way she can fit that in! Whaaaaaaaaaat is going on?”

Silly me. Had I read reviews – or really paid attention to the opening paragraph of the book – I would have known what to expect. Here’s how the book opens:

He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.

See? She says it right there: “a single season of something like happiness”! But somehow or another, I didn’t really process this information up front, and so ended up expecting something much different than what I got.

The book was excellent, and I’m thrilled to have finally read it. But, I’m quite certain that my reading experience would have been much different if my expectations had been set properly from the start. Instead of viewing many of the incidents in the plot as prelude to a big, gun-slinging climax, I would have realized that what I was reading was, in fact, a beautiful snapshot of a year in the life of an extremely interesting man and the people around him. The incidents I viewed as preludes were really what mattered – the personal exchanges, the small and big moments that made Doc who he was. It was only when I realized where the book was going and what its scope was, and recalibrated my expectations, that I was able to do a course correction for myself. I can only imagine how frustrated I might have been otherwise, expecting an ending that was never intended to be a part of this particular story.  As is, I wish I had read the entire book with this new knowledge, as I believe I would have appreciated it in a much different – and richer – way.

Has this ever happened to you? How do your expectations of a book affect your reading experience? Is it better to know nothing at all before starting a new book or to have some idea of the overall plot before you begin?

Please share your thoughts!

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