Why I Loathe Rating Things With Stars

May 5, 2012 at 2:44 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , )

A Review of Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life and I’ve always loved the classics.  So it didn’t surprise me at all years ago when my AP English teacher handed me the semester syllabus  with a list of titles to read and I unwisely blurted “I’ve already read them all,” with disappointment.  He said “Fine” and later supplied me with a new list, all contemporary award winners I’d never heard of, including Snow Falling on Cedars.

I read it.  I re-read it.  I couldn’t figure out why I hated it, and why I wanted to read it again.

Until now, when watching the movie, which is, amazingly, incredibly accurate from what I remember of the book – scene for scene.

At my core I am a romantic and idealist.  I love forbidden marriages, truly and unhypocritically, as I am in one.  I love childhood sweethearts, best friends, having secret adventures in the woods and on the seashore.  I’ve been in love with my husband since I was fourteen, have now known him half my life, and am raising a beautiful daughter with him.

What I hate? That Hatsue doesn’t marry Ishmael.  That she willingly chooses another, after giving herself to Ishmael like a little slut in the woods.  What is a beautifully written piece of timeless literature, becomes an irritating anti-love story to me, until it becomes the ultimate love story by him saving her husband anyway.  Poor Ishmael! Why did she not marry him? There’s so many reasons, so many.  I cannot mar the merit of Guterson’s work, it is so well done.  But I hate him for falling short in my ideally romantic heart.  I cannot comprehend giving myself so fully to my best friend and then saying No to his marriage proposal for some loyalty to culture.

I remember that somewhere I’ve rated this book with 2 stars.  2, just 2.  But –

I haven’t read this book in over ten years and still it resonates with me.  Even prior to watching the movie, I could recall various parts of the book in extreme detail, it’s actually why I chose to watch the movie this week.  I knew I was in the mood for it.  Now, with the movie so fresh in my mind, I think I should re-read it soon.  The story is brilliant, and true to what I imagine life was like then.  But I will always hate Hatsue a little more than I should, because Ishmael is one of the most beautiful human beings ever written and though it unfair to ask every character to behave as I would – I would have married him and lvoed him ’til the day I died.

So truth? I think I love Snow Falling on Cedars.  I love it with a hateful indescribable passion.  I hate Hatsue for being weak.  I hate the United States for putting the Japanese into camps.  I hate Kabuo for being so easy to love.  I even hate Ishmael for being as Anne Elliot describes in Austen’s Persuasion, one of those who “love longest, when all hope is gone.”  I hate it because I long to re-read it and every time I do I bawl like a baby, because every time I expect it all to be different.

I have a hard time rating things with stars.  My initial shelfari review, where I gave it 2 stars, stated:

I didn’t like it is too strong a phrase, and I liked it also too strong.  But I am committed to re-reading it eventually to see if my opinion has changed since I read it for school at seventeen.  At the time, I found it awkward and sad.  I do remember enjoying his descriptions, it was the storyline itself I was unsatisfied with.

Unclear, vague, and starless.  But the book stays with you for so long, so how can I rate it badly?  In all honesty, I can’t.  Not anymore.  I feel compelled to change the stars to 5, but tomorrow I’ll only want to give it 3.  This is why I prefer to read full reviews, and not rely on stars.  This is why I prefer conversations, rather than one-lined opinions.

David Guterson, if you read this, you are a brilliant writer.  And I have a love/hate relationship with your book.

P.S. I adore Ethan Hawke, who plays Ishmael Chambers in the movie made in 1999.  He is also an author, and I enjoyed his novel The Hottest State.  I also have a copy of his book Ash Wednesday, but have never read it.  If anyone is interested in reading it with me, let me know.  I am also interested in reading Guterson’s book on homeschooling, because apparently he has one, and any other book by him.


  1. Adam Jones said,

    I prefer letter grades, myself. But I’m not sure if that’s any better.

  2. Rose Cothren said,

    I haven’t read this book, but I did read Guterson’s Our Lady of the Forest in 2005 and liked it a lot–4 or 5 stars?

    • Anakalian Whims said,

      I’ll have to pick up a copy of that one of these days. Read Snow Falling on Cedars, I’d really like to know what you think.

      • Rose Cothren said,

        I have a paperback copy. Maybe I’ll take it for plane reading on my Paris trip.

  3. J.R. Woods (@JRWoodsWriting) said,

    I hate having to use a forced star or number system. I inevitably want my rating in some in-between spot that doesn’t exist, like a .5 or 1/2 star. If I have that option, then I get pickier and want the next available option of quarter points and/or stars.

    • Anakalian Whims said,

      Exactly. And then there’s the genre crossing. This deserves 5 stars for what it is, but how do I rate this little fluffy cozy mystery the same as something like East of Eden, that’s just unspeakable to compare them on the same level! But to deny my favorite contemporary cozy mystery authors a star because they aren’t Steinbeck is so unfair.

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