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Then We Came to the End - Joshua Ferris

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Author: Joshua Ferris / Genre: Fiction

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    9 Reviews
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      25.02.2011 14:30
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      A cummunal protagonist navigates life in a bitchy office environment.

      Ok, I'll admit it: I hated this book from the moment I saw it. The stylised front cover, cluttered with little people in various 'office poses', the cursive orange font, the Richard and Judy book club sticker...it all made me shudder. The blurb bored me and I objected to the idea that this was 'the story of my life'. I quite like my life, usually. And it definitely isn't because I think it's a sitcom, which is what this book seemed to think it was. Looking on the bright side, no book could possibly be as irritating as I anticipated this one being. Or could it?

      == The premise ==

      There's a bunch of supposedly eccentric yet charmingly 'typical' people who happen to work in an office. Stuff happens, particularly redundancies, gossip and mental breakdowns. This is all meant to be humorous. The narrative voice talks about 'we' rather than 'me' for most of the book and this suggests that the members of the office are some strangely consistent entity. It is intended to be a satirical view of the American workplace.

      == My thoughts or, more accurately, a summary of the irritations I experienced ==

      Due to my lack of interest in the whole concept, it took me a while to begin this book. When I did, I wished I hadn't. Maybe I'd 'get it' more if I had ever worked in an office but I found this extraordinarily dull and not at all humorous. In fact, I failed to complete this in time for the book group session on it (a rarity for me, but I'd never have even picked this up if I wasn't asked to!) and spent a good couple of months forcing myself to read it all out of sheer stubbornness. I was sure I must be missing something and hoped that perhaps the last 50 pages would reward all my diligence. They didn't.

      My biggest irritation was the lack of a central storyline. Instead, there are several narrative threads which recur throughout the book, such as one worker's potential cancer, another's difficult marriage and the struggle of several colleagues to accept being made redundant. Gradually, over nearly 400 pages, events become clearer and fit together a bit more. However, despite a kind of postscript at the end of the book, there is little sense of resolution because there was very little to resolve. Indeed, events are often mentioned right at the beginning of the book, so there is no narrative tension; instead I felt there was narrative confusion caused by the shifts back and forth in time. Initially I had to flick back through the pages fairly frequently to remind myself who a particular character was and what was happening to him. I found this irritating and felt that I couldn't get involved or interested in the story. Later, when I had a firmer grasp of who was who, I realised I didn't really care about what happened to them as I didn't feel like they were convincingly rounded characters.

      I also found the lack of a central character problematic. I was irritated by the perpetual 'we'. I appreciate that co-workers share gossip and often share perspectives on situations that involve them, but the lack of an individual voice grated on me. Bizarrely, there are 20 pages in the middle of the book which are written in the first person. This allowed me an insight into one of the character's lives for the first time and I thought it was a shame that the rest of the book wasn't written this way. Personally, I prefer books with a clear focus, even if that focus does shift periodically. This just felt like a mish-mash.

      Although there is direct speech and dialogue throughout, it tends to be interspersed with commentary and sometimes takes place in different time periods. Because of this, I felt that the whole narrative was a summary of events rather than an unfolding of them. For me, this meant that events lacked dramatic immediacy and I was uninterested in the summarised events. This wasn't helped by the shifts in time. The lack of focus could explain the lengthy chapters: the first two take up 96 pages between them. I prefer books with clear chunks and places to digest what I have read. Although there were regular breaks, the 'story' itself was so weak that there rarely seemed to be a genuine pause.

      Finally, I disliked the world Ferris presented. It is entirely possible that offices are full of barely sane, deeply troubled characters who hate each other. I am definitely willing to believe in office gossip and the tendency to avoid work. Overall though, the bitchiness and pettiness troubled me. In fairness, I suspect that I am deliberately disregarding those aspects which do ring true due to my overall irritation with the book. I think that in some ways this is a very sharp rendering of the daily squabbles which seem so important in the claustrophobic and often fraught world of the modern workplace. This is probably the real strength of the book: the way it exposes our daily struggles to be part of a team and enjoy success while finding some colleagues seriously frustrating. Ferris certainly captures this frustration.

      == Conclusions ==

      So, I loathed it. Who would I recommend it to? People who work in offices, perhaps. People whose sense of humour is different to mine. People who like books which meander their way to a sort of stop. People who can enjoy a book which describes the antics of a range of characters and don't need a central, sympathetic character. Someone somewhere likes it: it has won at least two awards in America, including one for 'best first novel'. It has had very positive reviews in British newspapers. I'm sure there is an audience for this book but my rating reflects my own sincere, heartfelt irritation.

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        04.03.2010 21:09
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        I would not recommend this book to others

        I have enjoyed a lot of Richard and Judy book club books, and this was one that I had on my shelf for a while. It has also won a prize for Galazy British Book awards in 2008.

        I found this book quite slow and boring, and stopped reading it after getting about half way.

        It is about a group of people working in an advertising company, during a time of redundancies. There are some parts that are a bit funny, but I found that the story was not going anywhere and it did not keep my attention. Normally I finish books, but I really struggled with this one.

        He did portray the life of office workers well, but it needed to have more to the storylines to keep my attention. I have worked in an office environment for over 10 years, and Joshua Ferris did comment or use things that I can recognise from this environment. But I prefer a book to be a bit deeper and something that I cannot put down and enjoy reading. The language was well written and I enjoyed the style of writing. I normally read a wide selection of books and I'm normally impressed with the Richard and Judy book club ones, but I would not recommend this book to others.

        It has won awards and some other people may enjoy it, but personally I did not enjoy this book at all.

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        26.06.2009 18:43
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        A funny, skillfully-observed look at the things we do when we're supposed to be working.

        How do you write a book about a group of people getting bored doing something numbingly boring without making the novel itself equally tedious? This is the question Joshua Ferris for the most part overcomes in Then We Came To The End, a witty, perceptive tale of the struggles and successes of those working for a Chicago-based advertising agency.

        Billing itself as being about "sitting all morning next to someone you cross the road to avoid at lunch", Ferris' novel opens at the end of the dot-com boom of the late-nineties, with the employees of the unnamed agency confident of their unassailable positions and blasé about their comfortable salaries. Then the redundancies begin. To "walk Spanish", the term is coined - as in 'Just after lunch, Will Sanderson was given half an hour to clear his office before he was walked Spanish down the hall'.

        Redundancies lead to paranoia, and paranoia leads to speculation - anyone sitting on a chair that isn't theirs could be next; Tom Mota, recently laid off, is going to come back and exact his retribution; Lynn Mason, one of the partners, has cancer, but won't tell anyone. Ferris manages to create a sense of the unknown-origin rumours and insular office politics that will be familiar to so many readers, and set against the ever-present fear of mass redundancies, brings humour and life out of his characters.

        This is, after all, a very funny novel. It's often a slightly black humour, but for the most part it comes from the wonderful cast of characters Ferris has created. Jim Jackers - paranoid, annoys everyone; Benny Shassburger - knows all, always has a story, never appears to be working; Marcia Dwyer - sharp-tongued, abrupt and immediately apologetic; Joe Pope - a rung or two up the ladder, never ruffled, is never any less than a model employee. The interplay between these and the many other characters makes the novel what it is, the squabbling and scheming, the furtive whispering and wild speculation.

        One of the most curious and original aspects of the novel is the lack of a central character. Although the story is narrated as if by someone in the room, the references are always to "we" - there is no "I" in the whole book. It's an unusual technique but a very effective one, giving a sense of the mindset of those in the office as a unit, reflecting their shared hopes and fears. The focus of the narrative almost never leaves the agency; we see next to nothing of home lives or interests outside of work, because this book isn't about that. Rather, it's about that considerable portion of our lives that we spend alongside people we don't necessarily like, following orders we don't understand, observing rules and etiquettes without remembering why, and building up this curious micro-culture amongst the cubes, post-its and pot-plants of the office.

        The situations the characters find themselves in are absurd and surreal, yet somehow believable - and contrast sweetly with the monotony of meetings and deadlines. The concerns the characters labour over also ring true; as far-fetched as some branches of the storyline might be, at times this could be any workplace.

        This isn't a perfect debut novel; although the narrative is skilfully written and immediately absorbing, the book struggles to keep the attention it so easily grabbed. The pace of the story is erratic, and rises and falls dramatically at least twice before pulling itself back together for the excellent finale. The sag right in the middle is a particularly tedious one to push through; Ferris inexplicably shifts the focus of the narration from the "we" of the office to a prolonged chapter dealing with Lynn's struggle (or not) with cancer. Away from the advertising agency and the well-judged cast of characters inhabiting it, Ferris' writing isn't nearly as strong - frankly, in fact, it's dull. Thankfully, normality resumes and the quality of the
        storytelling picks up no end.

        Another minor issue contributing to a periodically lumpy, awkward plotline is the curious chronology employed. One moment, Tom Mota is "walked Spanish" from the building, the next he is popping up as an workmate in an anecdote as if he were still employed; this happens repeatedly, with several characters. These aren't oversights of the author - rather just the result of interwoven stories told by various characters relating to various times, with a tendency not to mention when they occurred. As such, the story moves around in time all over the place in the first half. This isn't a major issue, and doesn't impair understanding too much (after all, the basic plot is very simple), but it makes for some slightly confusing vignettes.

        Then We Came To The End, starting and finishing strongly with an awful lot of good in the middle, is a fine book - and, as a first novel, promises much to come from its talented author. Ferris is adept at creating character and handling dialogue, and manages to extract the inherent humour from everyday absurdities with impressive skill. Though set in Chicago, it speaks of the frustrations and pleasures of workplaces everywhere, and makes for a keenly-observed and often downright hilarious look at the things we do in the name of gainful employment.

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          30.03.2009 18:50
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          Give it a go if you want but personally I wouldn't recommend it

          Then We Came to the End follows the jobs of a group of very different people who all work in an advertising agency at a time of redundancies and lay-offs. While each character avidly tries to keep their job, the usual office happenings are going on including office affairs, boredom, depression and, of course, gossip and rumours. It tells the story of how life is when working in an office where you spend the majority of your life.

          Although not his usual genre of book, my husband read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. I found him laughing out loud in a few places and I thought it must be good. So, working in an office myself, I thought this book would suit me and also give me a few laughs but, unfortunately, this was not the case.

          I found the book to be not at all what my daily office shenanigans were like and, although there were some parts which I found quite funny, generally I found the whole thing quite boring and a pretty dull read. I really don't understand how and why this book has got so many rave reviews. I read all different types of books and love them and get through about 2 books every week, and I don't think there's ever been a book that I didn't like, but I just didn't take to this one.

          Joshua Ferris writes the book from the view point of the reader so everything reads as 'we' which makes you feel more involved in it. I think he writes well and the way it's structured is good but this just wasn't one for me.

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            23.01.2009 00:20
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            A great read if you have a link to offices like this, or you love this type of fiction

            I loved the title of this book, and having just come to the end of my own job, I thought it was a must-read over Christmas.

            The plot follows a group of advertisers, working in Chicago during the 'dot com' boom and subsequent bust. The book is written about a particular kind of office, one that's simultaneously creative and commercial. The people there try hard to reconcile the act of creating, which is perhaps inherently meaningful, with the crushing boredom of selling everyday products.

            Strikingly, the narrator writes directly from the perspective of the group, so everything starts with a 'we'. I thought this was one of the coolest aspects of the book, and it was really effective in making you feel complicit in all the group's sometimes cruel and clandestine activities.

            The subtle changes of who exactly was excluded and included in the 'we' really reflected the subtle dynamics of the group. Everything is played out through the micro lens of office tasks and relationships, creating an atmosphere of constrained and claustrophobic tension. When big things happen in the lives of certain characters, their colleagues scrutinise them to see if they still fit within the 'normal' bounds of the group.

            The book reflects the petty cruelties that people are capable of, and those who are outside the group can be relentlessly bullied for not 'fitting in'. One of the main ironies of the book (and therefore a great source of its humour) is that it's so clear to the reader that everyone is trying to pretend to be 'normal,' and aspirational while really feeling alienated and alone.

            The book is funny in a painful way, that comes from recognising the alienation that we all must sometimes feel in the world of work, when nothing we do seems to have meaning. We all know some of these people, and perhaps we've all taken part in these office rituals, too.

            I am a big fan of this style of North-American young fiction, and I thought it was great debut. Funny, absurd, moving, and painful. However, if you haven't worked in an office, or you prefer a fast-moving plot with lots of colour and character, then this is not the book for you.

            I wasn't sure about some aspects of the author's treatment of the character with cancer, as I thought it portrayed her as a bit of a robot, and didn't resonate as much as the other characters.

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            11.01.2009 11:14

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            I was expecting something more from a Richard and Judy book.

            I picked up this book because of it being on the Richard and Judy book list. I read the back and the idea of the story sounded good, but sadly the book didnt live up to my expectations. Its about a group of office workers who's firm is making redundancies and each worker is trying to avoid being next. The book kept flicking around from character to character, ones got breast cancer, another is having problems with his wife because he's depressed, but i felt there were too many charaters to keep track of. Working in an office I could relate to little snippets here and there, and the book was funny i'll give it that - but the plot just seemed to plod along and not really go anywhere, not enough to keep me interested anyway! I was perhaps expecting better given all that I had heard about it.

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            05.08.2008 11:09
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            Might work better as a film if some good character actors sink their teeth into the material

            This debut novel received strong critical praise and appeared on several lists of the best books of 2007.

            It takes a comedic look at the lives of a group of office dwellers at a struggling advertising agency as they fight to avoid redundancy. Although highly readable it is rarely laugh out loud funny, and a lot of the workplace character observations have already been done in a number of situation comedies. On the page here, I felt the writing suffered from the absence of actors to bring these people and situations alive, and it made me appreciate how much more sterile a script of The Office or Friends might appear in mere draft form. Furthermore, the television drama Mad Men has taken a much more penetrating look at the advertising industry whilst richly translating it to the period setting of America in the 1960s.

            Finally, and above all, I also found myself thinking that the great Joseph Heller had already covered a lot of this territory more effectively in book form in his follow up novel to Catch 22, Something Happened, and there is no way Joshua Ferris is ready to live with that comparison at this stage of his career. To add insult to injury, the title is actually taken from the first line of a Don DeLillo book, and sadly, it just invites yet another unfair comparison.

            Nevertheless, this is a solid first book which displays promise of better things to come, and the author remains in tight control of his material. It is understandable that many reviewers were a little over enthusiastic about this story at the time of its release, because they have to praise something, and genuinely classic comedic books are rare. This is definitely above average.

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            30.07.2008 23:20
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            A group of office workers go through their lives with the threat of layoffs hanging over them

            Weird book that was on the Richard And Judy Booklist so I thought I'd give it a try when I saw it in the library. It was very Catch-22, skipped about and stories were left half told and then picked up later.
            The book is told through the collective "we," the office workers are a whole but talk about individuals within the whole. There is the boss who has breast cancer but hasn't told anyone, the man stealing someone else's depression meds and various other unique and odd people. Lay-offs result in a lot of nervousness, hilarity and fear for everyone but they still have a collective obsession with office gossip.
            I enjoyed it, but it took me quite a long time to get into it. It is likely that because I have never worked in an office some of the humour went over my head because loads of people have said it was hilarious and it has recieved a large amount of critical acclaim but I found only parts of it funny and some parts I just didn't get. Meh.

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            02.03.2008 14:20
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            A wonderfully observed window on everyday office life

            This is Joshua Ferris's first book and was shortlisted for the National Book Awards and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2007 so when I picked up this title I was immediately intrigued. Also, the cover (back and front), and for a couple of pages within, it is littered with praise from many newspapers/authors. Sometimes this can give a false impression - like when someone claims that it's the 'greatest thing ever written' and it turns out to be all hype - so when the Sunday Times declared it was 'the comedy debut of the year' I, as well as being intrigued, was also rather skeptical.

            I was wrong to worry.

            What follows is a tale of everyday office life in a Chicago advertising company where even the smallest trivialities become major talking issues in a bid to fill the working day with anything BUT work. Having worked in an office I could immediately recognise all the excuses/reasons me and my colleagues would offer as an excuse to stand/sit around with a coffee and, well, skive to be honest. The employees suffer from the delusion that their jobs are secure but soon have to face the truth as redundancy rears its ugly head and they suddenly have to face their greatest fear and sit praying for their own position within the company.

            The story is written almost entirely in the first person - apart from a chapter near the middle of the book when it switches to the third person in order to cover the night of torment one woman suffers through as she tries to overcome her nerves and fears regarding her forthcoming mastectomy, which, considering it was written by a young man, is extremely moving.

            It is not a 'laugh out loud' book but it is extremely well observed, making you smile with recognition as you follow the characters through their daily lives in the office.

            A funny yet thoughtful story that centres around the employees of a business that is slowly down-sizing and of the people who are desperately clinging on to their jobs and to their own sanity. Wonderfully written and a joy throughout - sometimes funny, other times sad - but always readable.

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