Every December 31st I sit down with the list of books I read that year and choose the best ones. I usually end up with 10 bests plus 5 honorable mentions. I include this many because I’m fortunate enough to be in the time of life when I can choose to read whatever I want, so I usually like every book I read. Sometimes whittling the list down is hard work.
Recently I saw a meme in an online book group: What are your top 5 novels of all time?
If choosing 10 or even 15 from a year of reading is hard, how difficult could it be to pick my top five books of all time? I decided to give this challenge a try.
To my surprise, the top four came quite easily. Although I’ve read a lot of books in my time, these four novels have stuck with me because they hit that sweet spot of my encountering them at a time when I needed what they have to offer.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee
I remember this book being on the reading curriculum in eighth grade. I did the math, and 1960 was the year I finished eighth grade, so my memory may be correct. However, it’s possible that my memory is distorted. I distinctly remember feeling outraged when, three or four years after I was in eighth grade, the mother of a then eighth grader filed a complaint over having her daughter read a book about rape. Maybe I did read it in eighth grade, or maybe it didn’t land on the curriculum until later and I read it on my own.
Whichever is the case, this is the book that has stuck with me the longest and that I have reread the most often. Whenever I get to feeling down on my fellow man, I reread this book to restore my faith in humanity. (In fact, I’m due for another reread soon.)
Yet, as much as I’d like to think that I love this book for its themes of justice and human compassion, I’m pretty sure the novel stuck with me because my father died in 1960, two months before I turned 12, after a long and painful separation from my mother and me. The portrayal of Atticus Finch, the wise and caring father, probably impressed me just as much as the story of Atticus Finch, the brave lawyer who defended Tom Robinson. If it’s true that we can live vicariously through literature (and I believe it is), then this book probably comforted me through my fatherless adolescence.
2. All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren
Again, I’m not sure when I first read this remarkable novel. My memory places it in eighth or ninth grade.
This is the novel with which I discovered how powerful a fine work of fiction can be. For the first time, all the pieces of the literary criticism puzzle fell into place: the use of the first-person narrator, the metaphor of the narrator’s last name (Burden), the powerful (for both the narrator and the reader) epiphany, the quality of the prose.
I don’t remember why I first read this book. It’s possible that it was on a reading list for school (in which case, I would probably have come across it in ninth grade). I can’t imagine how else I would have found it. Nobody in my household was a reader, and we didn’t have many books around. But no matter how I came upon it, I always think of this novel as my initiation into adult reading. I have reread it a couple of times in my adulthood, and it holds up very well.
3. Disturbances in the Field (1983) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
This story features a group of people who have known each other since their college days, when they used to get together and discuss philosophical ideas. In the book’s present time, these people are entering middle age.
I read this book when I was about the age of those characters and was beginning to realize that life is much more complicated than school prepares us for. In late adolescence and early adulthood, when we are beginning to be able to reason abstractly, we tend to think in dichotomies: it’s right to do this and wrong to do that, you either believe what I believe or you’re on the other side.
But life is very seldom so simple. Approaching middle age, I had had enough life experience to realize that what sounds convincing in theory often isn’t directly applicable in reality, that actual situations are usually not black or white but one of many—way more than 50—shades of gray between the two extremes. Like the characters in this novel, I had to learn by experience how to navigate life’s big events such as love, marriage, parenthood, death, and grief.
4. A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara
This recent novel is a lot like To Kill a Mockingbird in the sense that it’s one of the most moving, poignant books I’ve ever read.
This big novel covers the lives of four men who met as college roommates. The story opens just after they have graduated from college in Massachusetts and have all moved to New York City to undertake their careers as an actor, a lawyer, an architect, and an artist. In 814 pages, the book unfolds their intertwined lives in magnificent detail.
The story of how four people come together to form a surrogate family moved me because, like all four of them, I grew up in a dysfunctional, non-nurturing household and went off to college to start a new life.. One of the four characters, who becomes the focal point of the book, suffered a horrific childhood that he’s unwilling to talk about. The other three all intuit that he needs their protection and support, and the novel probes both the high and low points of their shifting constellation of interpersonal relationships. As someone who has been fortunate enough to meet a crucial person whom I needed at each significant point in my life, I found this novel both poignant and ultimately uplifting.
Although these four books came easily, number five was a tough decision. Only one more spot on the list remained, yet several books came to mind:
- Plainsong by Kent Haruf
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett
- Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
When I looked at the first four, I realized that they give a chronology of my life, from childhood to early adulthood to middle age and then to older age. This suggested that the last spot on the list should also go to a book about my current point on life’s continuum, older adulthood. The Blind Assassin, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, and Our Souls at Night all fit that category. On the other hand, Plainsong is about the most effectively written novel I’ve read.
But after a lot of dithering I have decided to go with the following choice:
5. The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett
When I was 57, I felt driven to go back to school because of a nagging feeling that there was more I needed to learn through formal schooling, not just life experience. I started a doctoral program in psychology during which several pieces fell together seemingly by magic. I wrote my dissertation on life stories and received my doctorate on my 63rd birthday.
One of those pieces that fell magically into place was this novel. Set in 1962, it’s the story of a young, white southern woman who dares to write down the life stories of the African American women who work as maids in her community. This book strongly asserts the belief that everyone has a life story and that everyone’s life story deserves to be heard.
In my late-life doctoral study I realized that it’s especially important for us to seek out and learn from the life stories of marginalized people and of people different from ourselves if society is to evolve and persevere. For that reason, this novel won the final spot on my list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time.
How about you?
What titles are on your list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time?
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Grafton, Sue. Y is for Yesterday
Random House Audio, © 2017
(print edition also © 2017)
I’m always eager to read the newest installment of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. However, this time my pleasure in digging into it was bittersweet. Y is, after all, the penultimate letter of the alphabet.
This time Kinsey is hired to look into a murder that occurred 10 years earlier. In 1979 four high school boys from an elite private school sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl and filmed the attack. Soon afterwards the tape vanished, and a female classmate, suspected of the theft, was killed. One boy agreed to a plea deal that got him and two of the other boys convicted and sent to prison, but the fourth boy, the ringleader, escaped and hasn’t been heard from since.
The present time of the novel is 1989, and one of the men, Fritz McCabe, has been released from prison. Although he’s now in his late 20s, he shows little remorse and in fact still acts like a moody, angry, angst-ridden teenager. He’s back living with his parents, who want to control his every movement, when a copy of the tape mysteriously arrives at the house along with a ransom demand. The McCabes hire Kinsey to find out who’s trying to blackmail them.
Kinsey’s investigation turns up secrets that get darker the deeper she digs. Most of those secrets revolve around the feeling of entitlement assumed by the children of families with wealth, status, and power. To complicate matters further, Kinsey soon suspects that a serial killer from a recent case may be in town seeking revenge against her. She continues to rely on friends such as her landlord, retired baker Henry, now 89 years old, to comfort her through the dark times.
There were moments when I thought this book could have been trimmed and tightened up. There’s a long description of Kinsey crawling under a building that particularly befuddled me. This scene includes a lot of detail about how she moved around down in that tight crawl space. I tried to follow all her movements, I really did, but I couldn’t at all visualize what was happening. Of course I knew what that scene was building toward, but the scene should have been significantly compacted to build suspense commensurate with the potential peril of the situation. Also, there were several times when key points about the old murder case were repeated—so much so that I began to wonder whether Grafton had forgotten she had already given us that particular tidbit of information.
Nonetheless, I look forward to next year’s publication of the last book in the alphabet series. I hope Grafton will wrap up the story of Kinsey and friends in a way that is true to their characters. I read a couple of interviews with Sue Grafton at the time of the publication of Y, and she indicated that she is not averse to the notion of perhaps writing some one-off novels about Kinsey after Z. Maybe we Kinsey Millhone fans won’t have to go into mourning after all.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Background: Genre Fiction
Genre is a term applied to different kinds of literature that can be defined by their subject matter, form, or technique. According to A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed., by William Harmon & C. Hugh Holman (Prentice Hall, 1996):
Genre classification implies that there are groups of formal or technical characteristics among works of the same generic kind regardless of time or place of composition, author, or subject matter; and that these characteristics, when they define a particular group of works, are of basic significance in talking about literary art. (p. 231)
Genre fiction originated in dime novels—cheaply printed paperbound books, originally sold for about 10 cents, featuring tales of crime or adventure. Two of the most popular types of dime novels were detective stories and tales of Western adventure by men like Buffalo Bill Cody.
Dime novels became popular with troops during the United States Civil War and remained popular until about the 1890s, when pulp magazines began to replace them. Like dime novels, pulp magazines were printed on cheap pulp paper and featured tales of adventure, love, or crime. Pulp magazines became especially popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Over time, several distinct genres of fiction developed to fill these publications:
- tales of crime detection
- tales of adventure, especially stories of espionage or travel to exotic fictional lands
- science fiction
Each genre had its own standards, including characters, plots, and writing styles.
Because each genre had characteristic contents and format, the term genre came to refer to formulaic writing. Today the term genre literature is often used pejoratively, with the sneering note of “mere genre fiction” used to distinguish works of popular fiction from more high-brow literature (I do not hold this view. In fact, one of the reasons why I didn’t finish my doctorate in English and American literature was that I didn’t agree with the note of snobbery that pervaded the academic study of literature.)
Here’s an article that makes a case for reading widely, in all genres, by a man whose discovery of genre fiction saved his appreciation for fiction and made him a writer: Class, Race and the Case for Genre Fiction in the Canon.
Review: The Blinds
Sternbergh, Adam. The Blinds
Caesura, an isolated town in rural Texas, houses about 40 people who’ve all chosen to live there, though they no longer remember why. Some committed a crime, others witnessed one. But all they know now is that they agreed to live here before having certain crucial moments wiped from memory, then chose a new first and last name from two lists, one of famous movie stars and the other of former vice presidents of the United States. They also know the rules of their new life: no visitors, no contact with the outside world, and no return if they ever choose to leave.
The town, called The Blinds by its residents, has been receiving a trickle of new inhabitants every few months throughout its eight-year existence. When the novel opens, we meet Frances Adams, one of the original eight residents.
And then she hears a gunshot…
Just like that, the novel’s action is under way. Its progression incorporates elements of five literary genres:
- police procedural
- science fiction
That early gunshot produces a body, the traditional opening for a mystery. And the characteristic process of a mystery is to answer two questions: Who killed whom, and why? But a traditional mystery takes almost the complete book to play out. In The Blinds, we learn about the killer much earlier than we expect.
(2) Police Procedural
A police procedural, in some ways a subgenre of mystery, shows the steps a law enforcement officer takes to solve a crime. Although we meet Sheriff Cooper early in The Blinds, it’s Deputy Sidney Dawes who undertakes an investigation—one that involves the sheriff.
This is the genre that carries most of the weight of the novel. In many ways the town of Caesura and what happens there is straight out of the typical Western playbook.
First of all, we meet Sheriff Cooper. Like all the other town’s residents, he has chosen a new name for himself, and he chose Cooper after Gary Cooper, the actor who played a sheriff in many Western movies. Our Sheriff Cooper wears a badge and considers it his job to protect the residents of his town. Second, the town itself resembles a typical nineteenth-century Western town: isolated, located miles away from civilization, a self-contained microcosm of the world.
Third, the plot comprises that of a generic Western: strangers from outside—riding in black SUVs rather than on black horses—arrive and set into motion action that threatens to destroy the town’s equilibrium. And the climax of that action occurs in a shootout, just like the famous confrontation at the O.K. Corral. And for good measure, the person behind the existence of Caesura is Dr. Holliday.
(4) Science Fiction
Research scientist Dr. Holliday (who, unlike her Wild West namesake, is a woman) created Caesura as a laboratory for her experimentation with a technique that removes specific memories from the human brain. Her discussions with Sheriff Cooper late in the novel reveal her as an example of the genre fiction trope of the mad scientist, such as occurs in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896.
As does most science fiction, this element of The Blinds comprises the novel’s thematic material. Dr. Holliday’s experimentation takes to the extreme current scientific interest in brain science and in the nature of consciousness, of memory, and of self-identity. Can science truly change people by eradicating some of their memories, then giving them a new name? And if such changes could be made, who has the right to make them?
This novel also contains a bit of romance, but I’ll leave that for you to observe for yourself.
Like many contemporary works of fiction, The Blinds combines elements from several literary genres. A good part of the enjoyment of reading a novel like this is recognizing and appreciating how it both embraces and subverts those generic elements to create an original literary work.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Kubica, Mary. Every Last Lie
Harlequin Audio, © 2017
(print edition also © 2017)
I enjoyed Mary Kubica’s first three novels: The Good Girl (2014), Pretty Baby (2015), and Don’t You Cry (2016). Each features a twist at the end. But these twists aren’t simple plot tricks designed to shock or titillate readers. Rather, they demonstrate that life and people may not be what they appear to be, that there may be more to any story than we know because we are limited to what we can see.
In this novel we meet Clara Solberg holding her four-day-old infant son in her arms. Her husband, Nick, driving four-year-old Maisie home from dance class, calls to say he’ll pick up dinner and to ask if she wants Chinese or Mexican. A while later the police ring Clara’s doorbell. There has been a terrible car accident. Nick is dead, though Maisie is unhurt.
The investigation of the accident concludes that Nick had been driving too fast when he tried to round a notorious curve on the road home. But Clara insists that Nick wouldn’t have driven so recklessly with their young daughter in the back seat. She can’t accept that Nick’s death could be so random, so without cause. There must be some other explanation for what happened. Her suspicions grow when Maisie begins having nightmares from which she wakes up sobbing, “The bad man, Daddy. The bad man is after us.”
The novel unfolds in sections alternating between Clara’s and Nick’s first-person accounts. Clara’s sections aren’t labeled, but Nick’s sections are labeled “before,” which I initially found confusing. Before what? And before suggests that there will be an after. Will Nick eventually somehow speak from beyond the grave? However, I soon realized that Nick’s sections narrate his and Clara’s life from his perspective leading up to the time of the accident. I would have preferred a label something like “six months earlier” for Nick’s sections in order to avoid this bizarre, creepy confusion.
Complications ensue for Clara: a woman from Nick’s life before he met Clara turns up, Nick’s supposed best friend and business partner isn’t the man Clara thought him to be, Clara finds a suspicious receipt … . Was Nick having an affair? These complications fuel Clara’s spiraling paranoia as she insists that someone must have killed Nick and sets out to determine who wanted Nick dead. Clara’s increasing paranoia, plus exhaustion from caring for two children, one a newborn, alone, plus a likely dose of postpartum depression, plus her own grief all make Clara’s agitation credible.
Meanwhile, we learn from Nick’s narration that his life also had its complications. He experiences financial strain from starting his own dental practice in an area with stiff competition for new patients. His business partner, supposedly his friend, isn’t pulling his weight and may even be sabotaging the practice. A second child on the way makes Nick even more worried about money. And then his high school girlfriend, whom he left when he went to college 12 years earlier, appears out of nowhere with an 11-year-old son and tells Nick she needs to talk to him.
The use of alternating first-person narratives builds suspense and tension as we watch both Clara and Nick dissect their life together separately. As in Kubica’s earlier novels, things may not be as they appear to be. Will Clara be able to find the truth she so desperately seeks? And what really happened on that road the night Nick took that curve too fast?
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Connelly, Michael. The Late Show
Hachette Audio, © 2017
(print book © 2017)
Michael Connelly is one of my favorite authors. His two series characters are LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch and criminal defense lawyer Mickey Haller, known as the Lincoln lawyer because he works primarily from the back seat of a chauffeur-driven black Lincoln.
In The Late Show Connelly introduces a new character, LAPD detective Renée Ballard. Ballard holds a degree in journalism from the University of Hawaii and worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. But after a few years reporting on crime, Ballard decided that she didn’t want to just write about crime, she wanted to be the one solving the crimes. She therefore joined the LAPD. (Michael Connelly himself has a journalism degree and worked as a crime reporter at the LA Times before becoming a full-time novelist.)
Detective Ballard was advancing well in her police career when she filed a sexual harassment complaint against her superior officer, Lt. Olivas. Ballard’s partner at the time, Ken Chastain, saw the writing on the wall and declined to support her claim. With no one to corroborate her story, her complaint was thrown out.
As punishment, Ballard was demoted to the night shift, known as the late show. This was not simply a demotion, but, for Ballard, a career buster because late-shift detectives don’t get to follow through with the investigation of their cases. Rather, they take the late-night calls but then turn the cases over for follow-up to the day-shift detectives.
The book opens with Ballard answering a call about a transgender woman who was brutally beaten. Ballard is at the hospital waiting to hear whether the victim will survive for questioning when EMTs arrive with a shooting victim. The young woman, a waitress at the Dancers Club, was shot when a customer at the club opened fire on three men seated at a booth with him. After killing the three men, the shooter shot a bouncer and the waitress on his way out. The bouncer was dead at the scene, and the waitress, near death, was transported to the hospital, where she died.
Sensing an opportunity, Ballard begins asking questions about the waitress. After questioning the EMTs, she goes to Dancers, where she questions the employees and takes the dead woman’s belongings as evidence. Meanwhile, the assault victim at the hospital survives her surgery but remains in a coma. Before her shift ends, Ballard also picks up a stolen credit card case that leads to a burglary suspect.
Knowing that detectives on the day shift won’t take much interest in the burglary and assault cases, Ballard manipulates and cajoles her way into investigating them on her own time. She also uses her initial work on the waitress’s death to hang around the Dancers Club investigation the next day. But that high-profile case is under the jurisdiction of Lt. Olivas, who won’t let Ballard anywhere near the investigation. But before leaving the scene Ballard notices her former partner, Chastain, retrieving a piece of evidence from the floor of the club.
Ballard continues to use her off-duty hours to investigate the assault and burglary cases. But the Dancers Club case takes a nasty turn when Chastain is killed execution style. Despite Chastain’s failure to support Ballard’s harassment claim, she feels a sense of duty toward her former partner and begins to investigate this case surreptitiously on her own time as well. Her work eventually solves the case, a fact that Lt. Olivas grudgingly must acknowledge.
I had wondered what Michael Connelly would do now that his mainstay character, Detective Harry Bosch, is nearing retirement. In The Late Show Connelly has introduced a younger character who, like Bosch—like all of us, really—deals with her own personal demons while remaining dedicated to her own notion of justice and the job she loves. I look forward to more Ballard novels in the future. In the meantime, I’m waiting for the fourth season of Amazon’s show Bosch, starring Titus Welliver, due next year.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
In its most basic meaning, setting in fiction refers to the time and place in which the action of a novel or short story occurs. In some works the setting isn’t much more than a few simple references to time and place in order to ground the work in reality. In other instances setting takes on more importance and plays a major role in how the work affects the reader.
For ease of explanation I’ve labeled some ways in which setting functions in the following fictional works. You may come up with other labels that you prefer. But whatever terminology you use, the important aspect to remember is to notice how the setting contributes to the novel or story’s meaning.
Setting as Character
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
St. Martin’s Press, 2017
In some novels the setting is so integral to the story’s effectiveness that it becomes a character in its own right. In this book 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish walks all over Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, 1984. Lillian worked in the advertising department of R.H. Macy’s department store and ascended to the top of this emerging profession. She was also a published poet with a modest amount of fame. As she walks all over her beloved Manhattan, she remembers both her own life experiences and the city in which they occurred. By the time she arrives back home, she has narrated not only her life story but also a tribute to the city that never sleeps in all its historic grandeur.
See also The Best Books Based in Every State:
The setting is so deeply entwined with these texts, the story couldn’t even exist in another place or time.
Setting as Atmosphere
Chance by Kem Nunn
This novel is set in San Francisco—but not the charming city by the Bay with its quaint cable cars and magnificent vistas. No, in this city, soon-to-be-divorced Dr. Eldon Chance lives a life “wherein each day seemed at risk of being even more dimly lit than the one before it” (p. 7). A recent fire in the East Bay hills has left the area covered in ash: “Cars were made to appear uniform in color. It lay thick in the corners of things like drifts of dirty snow” (p. 9).
Much of the novel’s action takes place at night, in a dark world of deceit and criminal activity. This is the San Francisco of fog, mist, and nighttime crime, where thoughts and desires scuttle off down the darkest paths and then emerge from the depths to bite us. By inverting the typical postcard image of San Francisco, Nunn underscores the dark bleakness of the life Eldon Chance chooses to live.
Setting as Metaphor
“The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe
In this gothic masterpiece an unnamed first-person narrator approaches the decaying family mansion of his childhood friend Roderick Usher. The narrator has been summoned there by a letter from Roderick, whom he has not seen for many years, to help allay a mental malady.
The narrator reads with Roderick in an attempt to lighten Roderick’s gloom. The body of Roderick’s twin sister has been placed in the family vault, but Roderick believes she is still alive. When the sister appears before Roderick and the narrator in her bloodstained shroud, brother and sister fall dead together.
The narrator quickly leaves. As he rides away on his horse, he turns for a final look at the family mansion:
The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely discernible fissure, of which I have spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feel closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”
In his comprehensive analysis of Poe’s works, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Doubleday, 1972), Daniel Hoffman calls the House of Usher (not the story, but the building) “no house at all but a profound and intricate metaphor of the self” (p. 302). Hoffman describes the story as a compendium “of nearly all of Poe’s obsessional motifs, here joined together in a dazzling, garish, and intricately consistent pattern of concentric meanings” (p. 303).
However, one need not examine all of Poe’s writing to understand the point of this story, in which the house is a metaphor of dark family secrets and signifies the disintegration of the individuals who live there as well as of the family line and its dwelling.
The personification of a creepy old mansion or castle is a common characteristic of gothic novels such as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
Setting as Plot Necessity
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Philip Ashley, age 24, narrates this first-person story of obsession. Philip was raised from early childhood by his older cousin, Ambrose, as heir to the Ashley estate. After Ambrose travels to Italy to check on some property, Philip receives a letter from Ambrose telling of his marriage to a woman named Rachel. As communication from Ambrose becomes less frequent and more mysterious, Philip decides that he must go to Italy to check on Ambrose himself.
Philip has lived his entire life on the Ashley estate, near a small village on the isolated coast of Cornwall in England. His experience of the world outside his home has been limited, and this novel amounts to his own telling of his coming-of-age story. Philip’s isolated living situation is a necessary part of the setting because his naiveté is central to the story.
The time of the setting is just as important as the location. Nowhere does the novel specify a year, but as Philip weighs the decision of whether to travel to Italy to check up on Ambrose, he notes that going himself will be more expedient than sending a letter. Although the trip to Italy by ship will take three weeks, sending a letter, which would travel on the same ship, would require three weeks plus another three weeks for a reply to arrive back in Cornwall. This setting before the arrival of any type of quick communication is crucial to the story because in Italy Philip learns a bit about Rachel, even though he doesn’t meet her. This information about Rachel feeds his speculation about her and her possible motivation for marrying Ambrose.
To say any more would spoil the pleasure of reading this novel. I love a good first-person narrator, and Daphne du Maurier is one of the best writers at creating such a character. Philip’s story requires the isolating setting of both time and place that contributes to his initiation into adulthood.
Setting as Historical Representation
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
Dell, 1984; rpt. 1994
The best historical fiction aims to recreate the feel of both the time and place in which the action occurs. In works of historical fiction, setting takes center stage to communicate not only the physical artifacts but also the social and cultural milieu in which the characters live their stories.
In Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns recreates life in a small town in rural Georgia at the beginning of the twentieth century. The main character is Will Tweedy, age 14, grandson of E. Rucker Blakeslee, proprietor of the town’s general store. As the novel opens, Grandfather Blakeslee, whose wife died only three weeks earlier, shocks the townsfolk by marrying one of his employees, Miss Love Simpson. His failure to live out the expected year of mourning offends his neighbors and shames his family. Furthermore, Miss Simpson is only half his age and—heaven forbid!—a Yankee.
In claiming the right to live his life as he sees fit, Grandfather Blakeslee becomes a spokesperson for the social changes beginning to chip away at the density of long-held Southern traditions in 1906. A concrete representation of the same phenomenon is the arrival of the automobile, which is about to expand the town’s world and drive it out of the old isolated world of the Confederacy into modern times. Cold Sassy Tree is a coming-of-age novel in which young Will Tweedy enters adulthood just as his hometown grows into the expanding world of a new century.
Setting in Speculative Fiction
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The term speculative fiction encompasses fantasy and science fiction, works of literature that take place in an imagined world. In a process called world building, authors of speculative fiction create a world whose setting contributes to the work’s meaning. As in historical fiction, setting takes center stage in speculative fiction.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a good example of how setting functions in speculative fiction. In these works the author must build a complete world and communicate the details of that world to the reader as necessary throughout the book (or series). Before writing the series Rowling had created a complete and detailed outline of how the wizarding world worked, but if she had started out by explaining that world, she never would have gotten around to the story at the novels’ heart—and readers wouldn’t have kept reading. Rowling skillfully develops the reader’s understanding of the world at Hogwart’s by incorporating details as the story progresses, giving us tidbits as we need them to understand the significance of the characters’ actions and decisions.
It would be fair to say that Harry Potter’s world is so crucial to the series that the setting becomes a character in its own right, as it does in Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. However, both of these examples illustrate how setting exists not just for its own sake, but rather in service to the human story at the novel’s center.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Genre can be liberating, in an artistic sense. To follow and break the rules at the same time can lead to moments of true serendipity. For me, it has elevated the concept of form, the actual structure of the novel, to become the most crucial element, because as in architecture, form follows function… . In effect, the conventions of genre have opened up new vistas of form to explore, new ways of telling a story that demand much from me as an author.
1. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
In this brilliant novel David Mitchell uses intertwined stories to demonstrate how individual people and their fates are connected across space and time. The literary genres featured here include autobiography, philosophical inquiry, mystery, and speculative fiction in a narrative framework that circles back on itself to create the paradox of discrete moments within the vast expanse of human experience and history.
The novel tells six stories presented in the following order:
This narrative structure underscores the theme of interconnection of all humanity across time and cultures.
2. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Usually in chronological narratives the most dramatic point happens somewhere between the midpoint and the end. But in this novel the high drama occurs near the beginning: On a foggy summer night 11 people board a private jet on Martha’s Vineyard headed for New York. As the plane takes off, “none of them has any idea that sixteen minutes from now their plane will crash into the sea” (p. 11). The only survivors are a struggling painter, Scott Burroughs, and the four-year-old son of the media mogul who chartered the plane.
An investigation ensues, lead by several law enforcement and safety agencies and the manufacturer of the jet. The remainder of the novel comprises chapters alternating between the current investigation and the backstories of the people on the plane.
Hawley’s structure for this novel reminds me of the television series Motive, a summer series aired by American television network ABC between 2013 and 2016. Each episode opened with a brief look at two people, the victim and the killer, living their lives. The remainder of the show detailed the detectives’ investigation of the murder as they tried to determine the motive and identify the killer. The key to solving the crime lay in finding exactly when, where, and why the victim’s and the killer’s paths crossed. The examination of the crash in Hawley’s novel proceeds the same way as investigators examine the lives of the passengers to figure out which one of them had a reason to sabotage the plane.
I’ve read a number of descriptions of this novel that say the climax, the plane crash, occurs at the beginning. But I don’t agree with that. The crash isn’t the book’s climax; as dramatic as the crash is, it’s merely the catalyst for the action that comes after it. In other words, the plane crash is a subplot that provides drama and suspense. The main story is Scott Burroughs’s rescue of the boy and what he does afterwards. The narrative structure suggests this interpretation by dispensing with the plane crash early on and focusing later on Scott’s story.
3. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Henry and Clare are passionately in love and vow to hold on to each other despite Henry’s chrono-displacement disorder, a genetic condition that causes him to travel through time whenever he’s highly stressed. Henry has no control over when he will be thrown into time or what time he will land in. Throughout the novel the current Henry lands in many different time periods of Clare’s life.
Because of the nature of Henry’s condition, the book moves around in time with no obvious ordering. This seeming lack of a narrative structure can make reading this novel difficult. I found, though, that I didn’t need to try to force the various meetings between Henry and Clare into a strict order. Much of the pleasure of this novel lies in just watching how the two maintain their relationship throughout their lives.
4. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
There are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the story. This dysfunctional-family novel—which is developing into quite a subgenre—employs an intriguing narrative technique to give several family members their say.
The novel centers around the marriage of Ingrid and Gil Coleman. The two met when Ingrid took a university writing course with the famous novelist Gil Coleman. The two became lovers and got married when Ingrid got pregnant just before the start of her final year at university. People warned Ingrid that Gil was a notorious womanizer, but Ingrid insisted she was in love and wanted to get married. Over the course of their 16-year marriage the couple had two daughters, Nan and Flora.
As the book opens, Ingrid has been missing for almost 12 years. She went out for an ocean swim one day and never came home. Nan, now in her late 20s, still harbors resentment over her mother’s disappearance, since Nan was forced into the role of mothering Flora, her younger sister by five and a half years. Flora has never accepted her mother’s death and still hopes that she will return one day. When Gil, now an old man, takes a bad fall, Nan summons Flora home to help care for their father. Before his fall, Gil had been searching through the thousands of books in his house because he discovered that Ingrid had left letters about their life together hidden in some of them during the month before she disappeared.
Those letters are Ingrid’s way of telling “my truth” (p. 17). There are three time periods at play in the novel:
- 1976 on, from the beginning of Gil and Ingrid’s life together
- June 2 through July 2, 1992, when Gil has been away from the family for months and Ingrid writes the letters detailing her life with him
- 2004, the present, while Nan and Flora care for the dying Gil
In each of her letters Ingrid implores Gil, who has been away for months, to come home to his family. She then continues the narration of their life together. Ingrid’s letters therefore cover the first and second time periods, while the novel narrates the present in third person. These third-person sections present the lives of Gil, Nan, and Flora. Chapters alternate between the present and Ingrid’s letters, given in sequence.
As the book opens, Gil has just found Ingrid’s last letter. We see this letter again, and finally get to read it, near the end of the book. In this way the narrative structure provides closure for Ingrid and her story.
5. All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda
Ten years ago Nic Farrell left her small hometown of Cooley Ridge, North Carolina, when her best friend disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Now known as Nicolette, she works as a counselor in Philadelphia and is engaged to a lawyer when her brother summons her home to help make decisions about their father, who’s in a care facility experiencing early signs of dementia.
The trip home, to the past she has purposely left behind, unsettles her. The situation intensifies when another young woman vanishes under circumstances similar to those of her friend’s disappearance. And suddenly Nic must try to find out what happened 10 years ago if she’s to understand what is going on now. Facing that necessity requires her to dig deeply into all the conflicting emotions and buried secrets about herself, her missing friend, and the people in the small, tight-knit community of Cooley Ridge.
But accepting buried secrets of the past is difficult, so, after an introductory section, Nic narrates her first-person account of her two-week investigation the only way she can make herself face it: backwards. As she explains near the end of her story:
I have to come at it from the side, grazing pieces here and there. Not looking it directly in the eye. I’ve never told it before. This is the only way I know how.
I’m getting there. (p. 333)
*Lee Irby, who teaches history at Eckerd College in Florida, is the author of the historical mysteries 7,000 Clams, The Up and Up, and Unreliable.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
And How It Differs from Plot
Have you ever wanted to yell at someone, “If you hadn’t done __________, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now”?
Actions have consequences. And often one action produces a consequence that requires another action, and so on—and on.
This cause-and-effect pattern works in fiction just as it does in life. A fictional character wants something and takes some action toward getting it. That action produces a new situation that requires a second action, and so on. The plot, as they say, thickens until the fictional world becomes quite complicated. Plot is chronological, starting at the beginning and progressing to the end.
But telling a story in chronological order often is not the most interesting or dramatic way to present it. Authors know that readers want to be pulled into a story right away and that if they don’t write openings that do this, readers will pick up another book instead. (See 5 Irresistible Introductions in Fiction.)
Authors therefore commonly look for some place well along in the plot sequence that will catch readers’ interest. They throw us right into the middle of the action, probably at the point where the main character’s companion is about to scream, “If you hadn’t done __________, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now!”
Once readers have been drawn into the story by an effective opening, they have to learn about the earlier plot points to understand fully the significance of what’s happening. More and more television shows now start dramatically, with a scene such as a shoot-out, then move into a sequence labeled something like “24 hours earlier” to fill viewers in. Authors must devise some similar technique for giving readers the background information they need. Both in books and in TV shows the earlier plot points—everything that occurred before the dramatic opening—are called the backstory. A novel’s narrative structure is the order in which the author presents the various events that make up the plot’s chronological timeline.
In identifying a novel’s narrative structure it’s often helpful to think of the point at the beginning, when we are thrown into the action, as the novel’s present time. Passages that fill in some of the backstory are called flashbacks because they often appear as memories, when a character’s brain flashes back to something that occurred earlier. An effective narrative structure allows us to keep track of what happened earlier—the backstory—and what is happening right now and into the future.
You may sometimes see the terms plot and narrative structure used interchangeably, although technically they are different. If we criticize a character’s action as being impossible or incredible, we are criticizing one of the novel’s plot elements. But when we complain that a novel didn’t grab our interest or that the story dragged, we are probably talking about narrative structure rather than plot. An effective narrative structure generally keeps the story moving by alternating sections of backstory with actions occurring in the novel’s present.
Example: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You
Penguin, © 2014
I’ve chosen this novel to illustrate the effect of narrative structure for two reasons:
- It’s an apt illustration.
- Because the key plot element occurs in the first sentence, I can discuss it without giving away anything that would spoil your reading of the novel.
Here are the novel’s first two sentences:
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
Notice how that first sentence immediately captures the reader’s interest: Who is Lydia? How and why has she died?
But notice, too, how the second sentence shifts the focus just slightly: Who are “they”? Why don’t they know this yet? When, why, and how will they find out? And what will happen when they find out?
In this novel Lydia Lee is a high school student in a small Ohio town in the 1970s. She’s the middle child in her family. Her father, James Lee, is the American-born son of Chinese immigrants, and her mother, Marilyn, gave up her dreams of becoming a doctor to get married and raise a family. As a typical teenager, Lydia wants nothing more than to fit in at school, but her Chinese ethnicity makes her stand out in their small community. The only people who can understand her at all are her older brother and her younger sister.
Everything I Never Told You isn’t just about Lydia’s death. It’s about Lydia’s death in the context of her family’s lives, and the novel’s narrative structure creates that context. Imagine how different the novel would be if Lydia were to tell her own story. But that’s point of view—and that’s another essay.
Many contemporary writers are experimenting with narrative structure as a way to help shape their book’s meaning. My next article will look at a few of those books.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Crouch, Blake. Dark Matter
Crown, © 2016
It’s the beautiful thing about youth.
There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential. (p. 10)
I don’t give out many five-star ratings, but this book certainly earned one. The first few pages aren’t exactly a suck-you-right-in opening, but as soon as the meat of the story began, I couldn’t put this book down.
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but this novel does exactly what good science fiction should do: It uses science (in this case, a problem from quantum physics) to explore the deepest questions of human existence. And don’t be scared off by the phrase quantum physics. The novel gives an excellent visual explanation of the situation at its heart on page 113.
Jason Dessen has a good life. He teaches physics at a small liberal arts college. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Daniela, and their almost–15-year-old son, Charlie. There was a time when both Jason and Daniela, a budding artist, imagined a different life for themselves: he a research scientist, she an accomplished artist. But when Daniela got pregnant, they opted for marriage and a life conducive to family. Jason got a steady job teaching undergraduates, and Daniela settled in as a stay-at-home mother with a little artwork on the side. Gradually youth gave way to encroaching middle age.
Then one night, after buying ice cream, Jason is accosted on the street by a masked man. The last thing Jason hears before the man knocks him out is “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason? … Are you happy in your life?” (p. 28). Jason awakes in strange surroundings, with people he doesn’t recognize but who seem to know him.
And so Jason begins the search of his life, the search for his life. As he gradually figures out what happened to place him where he is, he also does a lot of soul-searching about where he wants to end up. The tension builds as he tries time after time to find his way back home.
It’s often said that science fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about the present. In the case of Dark Matter, the distinctions between past, present, and future dissolve as Jason pursues the answer to those timeless questions of human existence: Who am I? And who do I want to be?
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown