WITH THIS NOVEL?
In a recent blog, I wrote about the value of analyzing other authors’ books and described the literary elements that seemed to be missing from a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel I had just finished. This time, rather than deconstruct a novel I’ve read, I asked several fellow writers with varying tastes to tell me about their favorites. The responses turned out to be both fascinating and familiar.
I’ll give a brief description of the novels. If you would like to know more about them, you can find summaries and reviews online.
Susan C-G selected M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, a heart-wrenching story about a lighthouse keeper and his grief-stricken wife who must make the decision to reveal the truth and give up their daughter or stay silent.
“It’s beautifully written,” Susan C-G said, “and the characters are deep and complex. You understand why they behave the way they do and it seems as though there is no right decision. I connected emotionally with all of them.”
In discussing one of her favorite novels, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, Martha M. said, “I’ve read a lot of thrillers, but this is the best.”
Assigned to help search for a serial killer, Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee, visits Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lecter, a psychopathic psychiatrist confined to an asylum, hoping Lecter will tell her something useful about the twisted mind of Buffalo Bill, the FBI’s target.
Martha M. describes it as “the scariest” book she has ever read and said she immediately “connected emotionally” with Clarice.
“It’s a revolting concept and disturbing at times but I was totally mesmerized. The tension is built into the plot and the characters are extreme and fascinating. Harris doesn’t let go of you until the very end.”
Another colleague, Jane S., chose four novels that she “hauls out” when she gets stuck with her own writing: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, James Clavell’s Shogun and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. Jane, who is writing a novel that takes place in Jamaica during the mid-1600s, explains the four books share the same dominating feature: extraordinary historical detail.
“I’m fascinated by setting and time,” Jane said. She wants her own novel to show a woman who “does not adhere to the social conventions” of the period.
Jane pointed out that the opening line of Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”) makes it clear that Jane Austen is writing a parody. In the next sentence, Austen says, “…this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.” Jane likes Austen’s skill in cleverly mocking the social conventions of marriage and propriety in English country life during the early 1800s.
Susan D. chose Anita Diament’s The Boston Girl, about an immigrant girl in the early 1900s, as a favorite book for some of the same reasons Jane selected her novels.
“It’s about friendship and feminism through the eyes of a Jewish girl,” Susan D. said, “but it’s not heavy-handed. It’s well written and it shows the struggles she and her parents go through and how people change over time.”
Susan D. said she enjoyed learning about the Boston culture in that time period and she connected emotionally with all of the characters.
Robert O., another colleague, wrote, “One of my areas of weakness as a writer is trying to make interesting the normal routines and activities of characters. My efforts frequently result in cries of “Skip that…The chapter should start here... ”from my critique group. In Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, plot-less autobiographical books posing as fiction, Ben Lerner’s protagonists go about their daily lives in Madrid and New York. Routine activities, like walking the streets, hanging out with friends and going to parties, are compellingly described through funny anecdotal stories, interesting characters, good dialogue and well-written sentences. Many intellectually challenging sentences require more than one reading and show why he was granted a MacArthur Fellowship (the ‘genius award’) and became a finalist for the National Book Award. As one reviewer wrote, Lerner brilliantly shows ‘the unmomentous passage of undramatic life.’”
“Lerner does a lot of analyzing of what's happening in the protagonist's life, and how it affects him, which is another reason why I liked it,” Robert said.
I found his response fascinating because, as writers, we’re encouraged to show tension and drama in every aspect of our fiction. On Amazon, Leaving the Atocha Station is described as “a portrait of the artist as a young man in an age of Google searches, pharmaceuticals, and spectacle.” I ordered a copy to understand why Robert chose this book and to learn how a writer makes the undramatic dramatic.
Now that I’ve read it, I agree with Robert’s analysis. But a few other elements stood out. First, it’s a stream-of-consciousness novel so the reader feels she’s walking right next to the main character Adam. Another element is the extraordinarily flawed protagonist, a self-effacing poet who travels to Spain on a prestigious fellowship. He lies to his new Spanish friends because they know nothing about his history and they believe him when he tells them his mother is dead. Unfortunately, he forgets that lie and later says his mother is alive. When challenged, he tells another lie, saying she’s sick.
We soon learn he’s in treatment for mild disassociation, sexual anhedonia (although he seems to lust after several women and occasionally beds them), insomnia and general mental instability. He takes several unnamed prescription drugs and uses a sizable amount of hash. He’s jealous, insecure, anxious, unreliable and unfocused, but he’s also clever, witty, charming and sympathetic. His life may seem undramatic but he’s the quirkiest protagonist I’ve ever met. In other words, he’s a fascinating extreme character, and I believe that’s the key to the novel’s appeal.
In talking about the books they chose, my colleagues felt they learned writing devices they could apply to their own novels—about what works and what doesn’t. They spoke about the cultural, social and psychological importance of a compelling time and setting and how, as readers, they emotionally connected to the novel’s multifaceted characters. The next time you read a novel, first read it for your enjoyment and then return to it later to analyze it. You may be surprised by what you find.
If you have a favorite novel, send me a comment and tell me why it’s a good example of a book worth reading in terms of entertainment, edification and the craft.