Rating: 4/5 Stars
This will be a spoiler-free review.
I’m not going to lie. When I was assigned this book to read for my fiction workshop, I anticipated that I would hate it. Not because I don’t like classic literature–in fact, I love the classics–but because it was assigned to me. In my experience, if a piece of classic literature is assigned to read, it isn’t the good stuff. I’ve never been assigned to read Little Women or Pride and Prejudice, and although I read Wuthering Heights for a class, it was a classic that I was allowed to pick for myself. So, going into this novel, I was filled with dread. I thought I was in for a rough 325 pages. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and I actually ended up really enjoying myself.
It’s hard to choose an element that I liked most about this book, because I feel that Kesey did everything right. The characters, the world building, the pacing and tension… It all worked really well in this novel. If I had to choose just one to rant and rave over, though, I guess I’m going to have to go with the characters, since, in general, that’s my favorite part of all stories. A book without interesting, well-developed characters just isn’t for me.
Kesey’s cast of characters in this novel were both diverse and incredibly fascinating. Every single one of them had a backstory that was slowly revealed to the reader over time, and they all had super unique personalities that added to the story in some way. Although Harding and Billy Bibbet found their way into my heart, I’d have to say that McMurphy was my favorite character by far. He was a very nuanced character, a mystery through and through that I had fun trying to solve along with Chief Bromden, the POV character.
Speaking of Bromden, I felt that Kesey made an excellent choice in making him the POV character. It was an interesting dynamic that I’ve never really seen explored in literature before, where the first person narrative almost reads like a third person novel. This is because Bromden pretends to be deaf and dumb, and so a lot of the story revolves around him observing everything that’s happening in this mental hospital rather than playing a major role in the events of the story. I also thought it was fascinating how Kesey played with the unreliable narrator. Since Bromden has hallucinations, I never really knew if what he was experiencing was real or fake. It made me question everything I was reading (which sometimes became frustrating, but overall I think it was a strong choice on Kesey’s part).
The world building in this novel was also very strong. Since nearly the entire story took place in the hospital, we learned a lot about the layout, rules, and politics of it. Everything was clear and made sense, and it was obvious that Kesey had done his research before writing his novel. Nothing felt unrealistic or out of place in this world that he built. Even better, the politics of the hospital played a major role in the novel’s plot, which was fun to read.
As far as pacing and tension goes, I felt those elements were very strong, too. The story moved along at a nice, steady pace, rarely slowing down so much that anything became boring. Scenes that were made up almost entirely of dialogue really helped to push the story froward, making moments that might not have been the most exciting but were important to the plot move by quickly. Plot-wise, I found myself really engaged in the miscellaneous shenanigans the patients got up to, especially when it came to McMurphy’s feud with Nurse Ratched. I always looked forward to finding out what McMurphy would do next to get under the Big Nurse’s skin.
So if I liked the book so much, why did I only give it four stars instead of five? A lot of it is personal preference, to be honest. One thing that I really didn’t like that others who read this book may love were the hallucination scenes. Since Chief Bromden is mentally ill, he sometimes hallucinates very vividly, and those moments just weren’t my thing. Don’t get me wrong, they were well-written, but they just didn’t feel like they added much to the story. I did like the vague moments where he may or may not have been hallucinating, like I mentioned earlier, but the deep dive into Bromden’s psyche was just too much for me. Those were moments where I felt the story dragged, and I had to trudge to get through them.
Similarly, there were flashbacks to Bromden’s childhood that I also felt dragged the story down. While he was the POV character, he definitely wasn’t the protagonist. That role belonged to McMurphy. So while it would have been fine to learn a small bit about Bromden’s past, I personally felt there were too many moments where Kesey dwelled on his life before the mental hospital.
And the final reason was just that the novel didn’t affect me strongly. I save my highest ratings for novels that really have me on the edge of my seat the whole time. While this one was definitely fun to read, I never had any strong feelings about it throughout.
All of these reasons are subjective, though, and definitely wouldn’t keep me from recommending this novel to others to read. In fact, I might even call it a must-read for classic literature fans, and maybe even for aspiring authors as well. With an author doing so many great things in their writing, it would be foolish for someone to pass it up without at least giving it a chance. I’d especially recommend it to anyone who loves character-driven stories that focus on a band of misfits.