A recap of how these two books made it to the Finals may not be particularly instructive, but it is entertaining.
The Lacuna struggled somewhat in the opening round against Fever Chart. Alexander Chee “didn’t really love either novel.” He felt The Lacuna was “an important book”, so he sent it through. Wolf Hall had a more difficult time with Logicomix than, perhaps, expected, as both novels “rank among the best books [Judge David Gutowski has] read in years.” I bet both Chee and Gutowski go for Wolf Hall.
In the Quarterfinals, The Lacuna was matched with Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows. I thought Shamsie’s work should have advanced, but Jane Ciabattari was tapped to make the call. While, in the prior round, Chee felt that Kingsolver “sucked the air out” of her central metaphor by naming the book after it and going to the lacuna once too often, Judge Ciabattari enjoyed “a razzle-dazzle sleight of hand that deepens the meaning of the title.” Kamila’s work left singed. Wolf Hall faced one of the best books in the Tournament, both by my standards and, it would appear, by the standards of Meave Gallagher. She started with a bias toward Wolf Hall and its historical setting, but truly appreciated Nicholas Baker’s work. Judge Gallagher chose “the big, awesome book with the big, awesome plot” where everything about the book was “pretty fantastic.” I would guess both judges stick with their Second Round selection.
I thought The Lacuna was done for in the Semifinals. Let the Great World Spin was already the winner of a top-flight prize and people seemed really to think it was very good, though I have not read of many who love it. Jason Kottke was wowed by The Lacuna‘s cover, so it advanced. Wolf Hall also had a cover that pleased its Semifinal judge, so it knocked out The Book of Night Women without raising a flap. If they stick to covers, it is impossible to predict which they will prefer. I predict they split, though how, I have no idea.
The Zombie Round stands out for the quality judging. The Lacuna faced first round loser Miles From Nowhere and had difficulty landing a knockout punch. Despite the fact that “both books probably gave [Judge Sam Anderson] the same net pleasure”, The Lacuna overcame its irritating characteristics to win Judge Anderson’s vote and a birth in the Finals. Wolf Hall meanwhile, demonstrated why it is the clear favorite. Where The Lacuna struggled with Fever Chart, Wolf Hall dominated it. For Judge Julie Powell, “the choice couldn’t be clearer.” “[A]t the end of [Wolf Hall‘s] 532 pages, [she]’d not have snipped anything at all.” Judges Anderson and Powell are two solid Wolf Hall votes.
The Lacuna has not had an easy time in any of its matches. Most of the decisions, to the extent they addressed the actual book between the covers, have given plenty of space to the novel’s irritants and shortcomings. Wolf Hall, on the other hand, won over all of its judges, just as it won over me. Wolf Hall has to be considered a heavy favorite in this Championship Match. And for good reason. It is the better book.
In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel makes very few missteps, all minor. Kingsolver’s work, in contrast, is more memorable for its mistakes or questionable authorial choices, than for its brilliance. I expect a large blowout. Given my prediction of a 6-2 advantage for Wolf Hall among judges who have already rendered a verdict on one of the books in a previous round, I still like my pre-Tournament prediction of a 14-3 Finals romp by Wolf Hall. The Lacuna will be lucky to come closer than that.
[Update: Boy was I off. The Finals were a thriller. Among the judges who had previously rendered an opinion, I was wrong about Alexander Chee and Meave Gallagher (both went for The Lacuna)
But I was right about David Gutowski (Wolf Hall), Jane Ciabattari (The Lacuna), Jason Kottke/Andrew W.K. (they split), Sam Anderson (Wolf Hall), and Julie Powell (Wolf Hall).
These judges split 4-4, mirroring the closeness of the full panel. I am a bit surprised. I found Kingsolver’s The Lacuna tedious and too earnest. I did not like the narrator and was not intrigued by the plot. I realize some did not like the depth of Mantel’s detail, but overall I thought the characters were more interesting and more full. I guess it goes to show the importance whims of taste play in these types of comparisons. Still, I am happy to be aligned with Sam Anderson and Julie Powell, the two best judges of this year’s TOB. Congrats, Ms. Mantel!
Stay tuned for the announcement of my 2010 TOB Contest winners.]