3 Recent Reads That Exceeded Expectations: Unexpected Pleasures

One of the most wonderful reading experiences happens when I sit down to a book with no promise that it will be better than average, and it exceeds my expectations. I call this an “Unexpected Pleasure” of a book. The key is that it does not need to be a five star read. It does not need to be a weighty classic, or a piece of unforgettably well crafted prose, or even have any deep meaning at all. It just needs to be better than expected. I often find that it's a cut above the rest in its genre. So this can be a genre novel, or light literary fiction, or even non-fiction.

Sometimes I derive more enjoyment from the Unexpected Pleasure than a book that is truly, objectively great. Why is it that reading a contemporary romance gave me as much pleasure in the moment as completing Moby Dick? Admittedly, I will remember Moby Dick for the rest of my life, and recall characters and quotes often. It will echo within me, unlike the romance. But in the moment, my satisfaction in reading the Unexpected Pleasure is almost as great.

I thought that there must be some interesting articles on why something that is even a little better than you expected leads to such pleasure.  I turned to Google, and searched “expectations vs. reality." Almost every site was about how reality never lives up to our high expectations. There were psychology articles on how to manage your overly high expectations, memes about how reality sucks, photo comparisons of the ugly reality of things, and “expectation vs. reality” epic fails.  Articles on why we derive happiness from small things? Nothing came up on casual search.  

Except I did find this amazing article from Bored Panda, which itself gave me unexpected joy, and a bit of a laugh.  You must look at it.  

I think unexpected pleasure may be so nice because we humans have a negative attention bias: we tend to pay more attention to negative stimuli and dwell on negatives more than positives.  I've been trying to recognize the smaller wins in life as a part of meditation practice and gratitude.  I think that's partly why writing about these small wins in my reading life is important. 

Common elements I find in these better-than-hoped-for books include a good story with compelling character arcs; characters whose motivations make sense and seem to be able to reasonably and intelligently navigate their difficulties, even if they stumble along the way; likeable characters; and sharp, often witty writing with little unnecessary filler. But honestly, you just know it when you’re reading it!

Here are three books that I’ve read recently that were Unexpected Pleasures:

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams

I’ve read a lot of romance in my time, and I have a fondness for the genre: it’s escapist for me, and I’m not going to lie, I like a Happily Ever After ending even if I don’t actually believe in the sort you find in romance novels IRL most of the time. A Happily For Now ending seems more realistic, and also fun.

But I tire of poorly written contemporary romance, and I’ve struggled to find really good books in this genre. I often find the characters a little superficial, the plots over-familiar and my big pet peeve is: too much filler! I wonder if authors are trying to hit a word count and write too much meaningless dialogue, sex, and repetitive, boring pages of inner angst.

Enter SDIJ. What a pleasant surprise of a book. I liked so much about it.

Take our couple, Eva and Shane. Their motivations were logical and their backstories made me want to root for them. As adults, they seem mature and able to do things differently in love, and life. They want good things for themselves and others. I appreciated the layer of social commentary. Though very much on the lighter side, I enjoyed seeing some issues around parenting in the modern age. I liked that Williams is writing a Black character-centric novel that makes some pointed comments about racism and society, but remains lighthearted as per the rom-com genre. The balance seemed well done.

And this novel made me laugh out loud, especially at the beginning. I really related to some of that parenting angst. I wanted to tab so many pages, but would have run out of tabs. It was never boring, and no meaningless filler in sight. Skillful prose here.Overall, a no-surprise, straightforward romantic comedy, but a cut above. Williams is an accomplished writer, and I give it high marks for its genre.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

I went into this novel with zero expectations, and it was a fun ride. I will not give you many details of the plot, as part of the fun is discovering it for yourself. Basically, nine people go to a health retreat, and get more than they expected.

This is billed as a thriller, but I don’t agree, really. Or, rather, it didn’t stay a thriller. It starts out reading like basic ensemble fiction about the wellness industry. It takes a turn into thriller-land, then becomes something of a bizarro/campy satire of the wellness industry and “McMindfulness”. All with a remarkable blend of tone: gently humorous but very poignant at times.

Moriarty was able to make me care so deeply about the characters: all of them! There was even some compassion for Masha, the antagonist. She means so well, but simply cannot make people change: “They are just not that smart,” said Masha. “This is the problem we face, Yao. They are not smart people.”

There was sadness and compassion amongst the satire. I was moved by one family’s story of grief: “...her parents were sick with a terrible, incurable disease that ravaged their bodies. It felt like they’d been assaulted. As if someone had come after them with a baseball bat. She had not realized that grief was so physical.”

At one point, there is a question: who is worthy to live? Who deserves to be saved here? My answer while I was reading? All of them! All these characters are just fighting the good fight, trying to get by, making up this complex weave of humanity which is messy and awful and great. Everyone matters, and that's a lovely message.

Nobody’s Magic by Destiny O. Birdsong

"Suddenly, she felt exhausted from the obscene amount of work involved with managing other people's feelings and not being courageous enough to tend to her own."  

This is a novel that took me out of the familiar and let me learn about the lives of three Southern Black women living in Louisiana, who have albinism. It is structured as three loosely connected stories that are essentially novellas, and could be read as stand alone.

It is a credit to the strength of author Birdsong’s compelling storytelling and sharp writing that I was so drawn into these stories. The women featured here are so very unlike me and my own situation that in more inexpert hands, I may have had trouble connecting. Each story introduced me to a character I felt totally disconnected to at first, but each woman showed such intelligence and strength in her story that I was glad to know them by the end. I liked these women very much, I rooted for them, and I wished I could high-five them at the end of their tales!

Though albinism is what connected these women’s stories and challenged them in life in different ways, I liked that Birdsong didn’t focus overly on making this the sole obstacle for each woman; they were fully developed characters with a myriad of things going on. Themes included emancipation and self-determination, female empowerment, and grief. Women stood up for themselves here, and didn’t apologize for it.

It was great to journey along with these characters, and it spurred me to do some learning about albinism–it’s so good when a novel supports learning. 


I'm going to try to add to this list, and update this post.  Are there any books that you'd recommend as your own Unexpected Pleasures in your reading life?