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Review – The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


The English Patient
by Michael Ondaatje
302 pages
Published September 1992

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje was picked by my book club, and I was thisclose to not even bothering to pick up the book and blowing off that book club meeting. I saw the movie version however many years ago and thought it was excruciating. I figured the book isn’t much better, but after a lot of thought, I decided that I’m not in a book club so I can read what I already have on my shelf (though that’s always nice). I’m in a book club so I can expand my reading, not so I can be a noob and pick and choose which books I read for book club.

It was with much trepidation that I started reading The English Patient, but I found early on that I was really enjoying it! With that said, I’m sorry to say I didn’t really *get* the book. Later when I found out that the author is a poet, I was like, “Oh, no wonder I didn’t get it. This book is all literary and stuff.” But seriously, the writing is lovely, just not…compelling. I liked it well enough, but wouldn’t be able to write a deep paper about it.

Here’s a quick sketch of The English Patient: Hana, a nurse, is in Italy taking care of this English patient (hence, the title) who’s badly burned and won’t tell anyone his identity. They’re alone is an abandonded villa until this other guy, Carvaggio, shows up that used to be friends with Hana’s dad, who was a soldier and was spying on the Germans when he was caught and tortured for his information. Then these other two guys show up, one of whom is Kip, an Indian Sikh, who is an expert bomb deconstructer. Kip hangs around to find any bombs that may have been hidden in the villa. Other stuff happens, but that is basically the plot on which the story hangs.

The story is basically the history of these four characters, Hana, Carvaggio, the English patient, and Kip. Which was okay, but kinda slow. I liked it, but unfortunately it didn’t give us much to talk about at the book club meeting. The book club discussion went something like this:


Not that we were totally quiet, but the discussion was hard to get going, in large part because no one loved it or hated it. I can see why the book won the Booker Prize for fiction (kinda sorta not really), but it was pretty much over my head. I might be able to appreciate the movie a little more now that I’ve read the book, but I don’t think I’ll test the waters on that.

Rating: 85 out of 100

Buy The English Patient from Powell’s | Buy The English Patient from Amazon

Other reviews:

My Friend Amy

Booking Mama

S. Krishna’s Books

The Magic Lasso

Life and Times of a “New” New Yorker

books i done read (she said what I said…only better)

| Tags: , , , , , 35 comments »

35 Responses to “Review – The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje”

  1. Lenore

    Not a great book for a book club then! You know, I’ve tried to read this, and I could just never get into it. It is well-written and lyrical, but it is also slow and kinda pointless (from what I could tell).


  2. Nicole

    I couldn’t get into the book or movie. And that’s saying something cause wasn’t one of the Fiennes brothers in the movie? It’s still sitting on my shelf and maybe one day I will read a chapter or two to decided if it just needs to move along to somewhere else..


  3. Kathy

    I think you actually liked the book more than anyone else. I found my mind wandering while I read it.


  4. Christine

    Later when I found out that the author is a poet, I was like, “Oh, no wonder I didn’t get it. This book is all literary and stuff.”

    Bwa ha. I couldn’t get into The English Patient either — but you might like In the Skin of a Lion a lot more. Except that one’s super Toronto-centric — I’m not sure how well it translates to people in other cities/countries (not being one myself, you see). Might be worth a shot, though.


  5. Jenny

    Hahahaha, “all literary and stuff” is exactly how I thought this book was, and that’s why I haven’t ever read it. I NEED PLOT. 😛


  6. Lu

    I liked Divisadero a lot! It was so good, but I’ve never really been a fan of The English Patient. I started the book, never finished it. Started the movie, never finished it. But I’d be really interested to see if you liked Divisadero 🙂


  7. Miriam Parker

    I loved Divisadero too! When I read The English Patient I just couldn’t help but picture Kristin Scott Thomas and the beautiful scenes from the movie. Somehow they became more memorable than the book. It’s a lesson in that you must ALWAYS read the book before the movie! 🙂


  8. Beth F

    Loved the crickets remark. It wasn’t quite that bad, but close!


  9. Kathryn

    I read this a few years back. I remember finding the writing beautiful, poetic, and I copied down several favorite lines and passages. Then gave the book to the Goodwill when I was finished, because I knew I’d never read it again. The story (was there a story? a plot of some sort?) Would have been better off as poetry, or a series of vignettes. My opinion.


  10. Amy Reads Good Books

    I hated the movie as well! I always love it when the Seinfeld episode is on where Elaine hates the film. Thanks for the review. . .I think I’ll pass on the book!


  11. Jeanne

    Sometimes small things do matter, and Ondaatje is good at showing that, if you care to look. Maybe you’ve got to be in the mood for that–because, really, life can be “slow and kinda pointless” sometimes.


  12. Alyce

    I’ve heard the same thing from a lot of people about this book (that they neither loved nor hated it). I thought the movie wasn’t bad, so I’m curious to see whether or not I’ll like the book.


  13. Meghan

    Yeah, it was a hard discussion! I thought it was too deep for me. I didn’t really get much out of it to talk about and that was the problem I had leading. I think in the future I will not suggest any book that is so literary and so likely to be over my head. It might have worked in a class, but not for informal discussion.

    I also felt fairly meh about the book and I agree with Kathy that it was hard to focus on.


  14. nikki

    I haven’t read this, but I did read Divisadero. “the writing is lovely, just not…compelling,” exactly sums up my feelings on that book.


  15. Kailana

    I haven’t read this book by Ondaatje yet, but I have read his others. He is good enough that I keep reading, but not one of my favourite authors.


  16. Raych

    My spanish prof yesterday was all, I’m reading this book *holds up The English Patient* and it is blowing my mind etc etc etc, and then I smashed my face into the desk.


  17. Ti

    I could not STAND this book! I would rather stick a pin in my eye than read it again. However, you could be right. It was perhaps too sophisticated in style for me to understand or make sense of.


  18. jenniffer



  19. Bookfool, aka Nancy

    I guess I’m the lucky chick. I read the book before the movie and loved it. Kind of hated the movie, actually.


  20. Scobberlotcher

    I read the book and watched the movie. Loved both! Then I found out that IN THE SKIN OF THE LION is the prequel to PATIENT. Like most first books, I thought LION was much, much better.


  21. Eleanor

    Hi Trish,
    I doubt it was over your head. In fact I’m sure it wasn’t. That’s a really polite way of saying “boring,” though. I didn’t read it, but found the movie way over my head.


  22. bybee

    I read your post and thought of the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine is perplexed that everyone loves TEP except her.

    I like the part in the movie where Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas take a bath together.

    And….that guy from lost is Kip. Yummy!


  23. lilly

    I didn’t like the movie at all, I actually started watching it an dthen didn’t even finish. I own the book but I just don’t know if I’m ever going to read it, it’s definitely at the bottom of my list. Most people I talked to or read their reviews have a similar opinion to yours. It’s a good book but not really a fantastic read.


  24. Lisa

    I couldn’t make myself finish the book or the movie.

    I like that first bit about how you’re not in a book club to read what you have. I suspect I’d have skipped the meeting on this one.


  25. zibilee

    Hated, hated, hated the movie, which kept me from reading this book. I have to say I think if I did read it, it would probably go over my head also. It seems like a really intimidating book. Great review!


  26. Yvette Kelly

    I like the idea of being able to tell people I enjoyed books like The English Patient as it would sound like I was incredibly cultured.But no matter how hard I try I just cannot.I have considered lying and then chickened out in case I get asked a whole lot of “cultured” questions.Oh boy…


  27. Stephanie

    Every time I see this book being reviewed, I have to laugh. Not because it was funny, but because it reminds me of Seinfeld! The episode where Elaine goes to see this movie…and everyone else LOVES it. And she HATES it. That is how I feel about the book. Everyone loved it but me. I thought it was so boring!

    I can’t imagine it would be great for a bookclub.
    .-= Stephanie´s last blog ..Library Loot, an OMG Moment…and Books! =-.


  28. claire

    I’m really surprised how so many here didn’t like this book. I’m one of the few, then, who really loved it. I haven’t seen the movie, though. I didn’t like Divisadero as much, by the way. 🙂


  29. Rebecca Cox

    I loved this book. It was so much better than the movie and went into much greater detail. I was thrilled when I finished reading it that I picked it up at the bookstore. It is on my keep shelf and I have lent it to many friends. They have all loved it. I even gave the book to my DH who loved the movie and agreed that the book was even better.

    I had to watch the movie about 3 times before I was able to actually pick up all the nuances and the book gave these details without me having to work so hard.


  30. S. Krishna

    Ha! Great review – our discussion really was kind of lame for this book, wasn’t it?


  31. Kari

    Ha, I know this is old news, but it just reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine’s boyfriend dumps her because she hates the English Patient movie. And then she’s forced to see it again with Peterman and still hates it.


  32. Anna

    I’ve never seen the movie, and the book is on my shelf collecting dust. I probably should read it already.

    I hope it’s okay that I linked to your review on War Through the Generations.


  33. Lucy

    I bought this book way before the movie — picked it up off the shelf at the bookstore because of the Cecil Beaton photograph on the front. Read the first page and was hooked. I don’t think I am particularly cultured or literate but I loved loved loved this book. I read In the Skin of a Lion and loved that book as well. I’ve read some of his poetry, didn’t like it. Read his memoir, didn’t like it. I haven’t read anything else since and I never reread The English Patient — after I had my kid 7 years ago, I haven’t had the energy or brain focus to read him but I have Anil’s Ghost sitting on my shelf — maybe in ten years :-).


  34. Books HQ

    I’m so glad to find people who thought this book was as utterly boring as I did. I was really looking forward to reading it, thinking it would be beautiful and entertaining, but what a snoozefest! I’m surprised I finished it really, it was stubbornness rather than enjoyment that compelled me on. *not to self – never watch the film!


  35. M.Ghalib

    The author is quite high on sensitive quotient and it reflects in his empathy to multiple characters. Got hold of this book after seeing the movie and this one doesn’t disappoint either. There is a highly poetic quality in ideas and flow of the story, though it is non-linear. Valuable addition to any collection.


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