When I start to read a book, I always find it in goodreads and change the status to 'currently reading' (if I already own it) or add it if it's a library book. Whilst doing this, I skim over the average rating and look over the first few reviews from the general goodreads community. And lately, I've been noticing a trend - that lots of people simply don't like a book if they dislike or can't connect with the main character.
I noticed it first with Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers (link to my review). It's about Victoria, a girl who has spent her life in the care of social services, shunted from foster home to group home and back until finally left to her own devices at age 18. At times, she is very unlikeable as she pushes away people that care about her, is irritatingly passive and waits for a happily ever after to just appear. This has led to many negative reviews of the whole book. But it just didn't bother me because whilst Victoria may not be the most likeable character, she is believable and I find that to be far more important. Her likeability or lack thereof never entered my head as an issue until I started looking at other reviews of the book.
I'm noticing it too in the book I'm reading at the moment, Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep. It's a coming of age tale set in a prestigous New England boarding school and the main character, Lee Fiora, seems to have set a lot of reviewers teeth on edge, judging by the amount of one star reviews on goodreads. I'm only about a third of the way in but I can see why readers might find Lee irritating - she is painfully socially awkward and like Victoria, she is passive. She bemoans her lack of friends but when people do invite her out, she turns them down. As someone who has rather socially awkward as a teenager myself, I can relate to Lee but I can see why others can't.
It all got my thinking - do you really have to like the main character in order to enjoy a book? Judging by other reviewers, the answer for many people is a resounding 'yes'. But I gave The Language of Flowers 4.5 out of 5 even though I didn't warm to Victoria. I think it all goes back to expectations - I don't expect to like every protagonist of every book I read, just like I wouldn't expect to like every person I meet in real life. Sometimes I prefer it when I don't like the character, as who really would want to read about shiny, likeable characters all the time? The world just isn't like that, so I have no interest in books being like that.
I can understand why people find it hard to enjoy books when they actively dislike the main character as so much of the reading experience is about connection, about seeing a part of yourself in a fictional character. I love it when I really relate to a main character, like I did in Agnes Grey, but that's not the be all and end all of reading. I want quality writing, an interesting setting and plot and above all, I want to understand more about the world and the people in it. Unlikeable characters can be the most fascinating as long as they are plausibly and believeably written. I like to get in the head of someone who is completely unlike me, even if just to get away from myself for a moment.
How do you feel about it? Is your reading experience soured if you dislike the main character? Do you embrace unlikeable characters or is it just something you are prepared to overlook if other aspects of the novel are good?