6 Illustrations of How Setting Works in Literature

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.

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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
Scribner, 2014

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
1839

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
1951

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

Harry Potter boxed setThe 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

5 Novels With Unusual Narrative Structures

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.

—Lee Irby* in Genre as Liberation: On Learning to Manipulate Thriller Tropes

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1. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cover: Cloud AtlasIn 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:

1—2—3—4—5—6—5—4—3—2—1

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:

  1. 1976 on, from the beginning of Gil and Ingrid’s life together
  2. 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
  3. 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)

Reference

*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

How Narrative Structure Works in Fiction

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
ISBN 978–1–101–63461–5

I’ve chosen this novel to illustrate the effect of narrative structure for two reasons:

  1. It’s an apt illustration.
  2. 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

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Review: “Dark Matter”

Crouch, Blake. Dark Matter
Crown, © 2016
ISBN 978–1–101–90422–0

Highly recommended

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

“Big Little Lies”: The HBO Series

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Spoiler Alert

I avoided giving away basic plot points in my book review, but in comparing the book with the TV series I must include some of the major events. Therefore, if you haven’t read the book or seen the series, you might want to stop right here to avoid spoiling the story. (You can always come back later.)

When I see a film or television show based on a book, I look specifically for differences. Print and film are different media, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. I always hope that the differences will arise from the attempt to use what the visual medium does well in order to remain true to the spirit of the written book. In the HBO adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies I found a couple of minor differences and three major differences that changed the novel’s emphasis somewhat.

Minor Differences

Moriarty set the novel in a seaside community in Australia, her home country. It’s not surprising that HBO changed the setting to Monterey, California, for its predominantly American audience. My only quibble with this change is that Jane, who earns a living as a freelance bookkeeper, could probably not afford to live in such a posh place. But this is an almost unnoticeable difference. The HBO adaptation kept the emphasis on a place where people chose to live because of the community ambiance and, especially, the quality school for their children.

The other minor change is that the focal group of children has been advanced from kindergarteners in the novel to first graders in Monterey. Again, this is not a big deal. However, kindergarten makes more sense because the group of children and parents in the novel are all starting out together. Having the children start first grade loses some of the hopefulness and excitement of undertaking a new adventure together. This change also makes both Jane and Ziggy outsiders entering a group of others who already know each other, since they presumably would have spent kindergarten together.

Major Differences

Those minor differences between the book and the television series are ultimately insignificant. But I found three major differences that somewhat change the story’s emphasis.

One

In the novel Madeline works part time at the community theater. The series adds a production by the community theater, thereby transforming the minor detail of Madeline’s part-time work into a major subplot. Madeline functions as the production’s chief manager and publicity director. This change plus the portrayal by Reese Witherspoon makes Madeline a much more ordinary character than she is in the book. She loses almost all of her flamboyance and lovable outrageousness. In the novel, when Jane first sees Madeline in the car ahead of her, she thinks:

A glittery girl… . They weren’t necessarily the prettiest but they decorated themselves so affectionately, like Christmas trees, with dangling earrings, jangling bangles and delicate, pointless scarves. They touched your arm a lot when they spoke. (p. 14)

HBO totally eliminated this lovable aspect of Madeline’s characterization.

The addition of the community play subplot also affects Celeste. When some members of the community attempt to censor the play, Celeste acts as the theater’s lawyer in presenting arguments to the mayor. This episode gives Celeste a taste of the work she used to do and reminds her how much she misses it. The episode also reminds both viewers and Celeste herself that she would be capable of earning a living on her own.

Two

In the HBO series Jane buys a gun and has serious flashbacks and anxiety attacks about her encounter with Ziggy’s father. Overall, the series makes Jane look more unstable than she comes across in the novel.

Three

Remember that spoiler alert above!

The ending of the series takes place quickly, in a silent, jerky juxtaposition of actions. This presentation makes the ending feel surreal, which it isn’t at all in the book. This ending detracts from the novel’s presentation of what happened at trivia night in three ways:

  1. It removes the effect of Bonnie’s speech about why she reacts as she does.
  2. It lessens the effect of Jane’s realization about the murder victim.
  3. It ignores the way each significant woman says “I did it” in the novel to protect one of their own. The fellowship of the women in the community is one of the novel’s strengths, and this ending completely ignores that aspect.

Despite these differences, I enjoyed the HBO adaptation of this novel overall. Even with the changed ending, the series was true to the spirit of Moriarty’s book.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “So Long, See You Tomorrow”

Maxwell, William. So Long, See You Tomorrow
Random House, 1980
ISBN 0–679–76720–7

I very much doubt that I would have remembered for more than fifty years the murder of a tenant farmer I never laid eyes on if (1) the murderer hadn’t been the father of somebody I knew, and (2) I hadn’t later on done something I was ashamed of afterward. This memoir—if that’s the right name for it—is a roundabout, futile way of making amends. (p. 6)

Sometimes our greatest regret isn’t something we did, but something we didn’t do.

In this short—only 135 pages—gem of a novel, Maxwell’s first-person narrator ponders “the moment that has troubled me all these years” (p. 55). In considering “What strange and unlikely things are washed up on the shore of time” (p. 16), he meditates on the nature of time and memory:

What we or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw. (p. 27)

The moment that haunts him is failing to acknowledge Cletus Smith, son of the murderer, when the two of them crossed paths a year and a half after the murder and its ensuing scandal. By then both the narrator’s family and Cletus and his mother had moved from the country into Chicago, where the boys’ attended the same high school. When the two boys passed each other in a school hallway, each recognized yet failed to acknowledge the other.

For the narrator, “the elderly man I am now” (p. 51) can seek atonement only in imagination:

Why didn’t I speak to him? I guess because I was so surprised. And because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what was polite in the circumstances. I couldn’t say I’m sorry about the murder and all that, could I? … I think now—I think if I had turned and walked along beside him and not said anything, it might have been the right thing to do. But that’s what I think now. It has taken me all these years even to imagine doing that, and I had a math class on the second floor, clear at the other end of the building, and there was just barely time to get there before the bell rang. (p. 51)

We can forgive his rationalization, since “There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self” (p. 134). Yet the hindsight of old age produces at least a bit of guilt over the question of whether Cletus Smith was ever able to “lead his own life, undestroyed by what was not his doing” (p. 135).

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Book Review: “Big Little Lies”

Moriarty, Liane. Big Little Lies
Berkley, 2014
ISBN 978–0–399–58720–7

I hadn’t read any of Liane Moriarty’s books, although I kept seeing them recommended. I picked up this one when I heard that HBO was making it into a series.

Set in a suburban seaside town in Australia, the novel delves into the lives and interactions of the community’s residents. The focal point of the story is the school and its annual fundraiser, trivia night, held near the end of the school year. The opening pages make clear that the present time of the story is the trivia night and that the police are investigating a murder that has occurred at the event. Moriarty sprinkles throughout the novel quotations from police interviews with the attendees as periodic reminders of the situation. These quotations also build suspense by dropping hints of personal animosities while withholding both the victim’s and the suspect’s names.

At the center of the story are three mothers:

  1. Madeline: flamboyant and outspoken, she’s turning 40. She is married to Ed, and they have a daughter, Chloe, entering kindergarten. Other important members of this cluster are Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan, and his new wife, Bonnie, whose daughter, Skye, is entering kindergarten.
  2. Celeste: former attorney and drop-dead gorgeous wife of the dashing and mega-rich Perry. They are the town’s Beautiful Couple. Their identical twin boys, Josh and Max, are entering kindergarten.
  3. Jane: newly arrived single mother with a mysterious past. Her son, Ziggy, is entering kindergarten.

As the book opens on kindergarten orientation day, Jane meets Madeline, who then introduces her best friend, Celeste. When they go back to school to pick up their children, a little girl says one of the boys tried to choke her. With the marks clearly visible on her neck, she is pressed to name the culprit, and she points at Ziggy. Ziggy protests that he didn’t do it, and the tone for the school year is set, with various parents choosing sides and pointing fingers despite Ziggy’s continued and fervent denials.

This book is about the women and their growing friendship. Jane believes in Ziggy’s innocence, while Madeline and Celeste trust her judgment and continue to support her. But most of the other kindergarten parents are quick to believe the worst, and Jane’s hope for an idyllic new life quickly fades.

But the novel is also about the men, particularly about their role as fathers. Ed left a high-power journalism job to help with parenting duties so that Madeline could work part time. Nathan, who abandoned Madeline and their daughter 13 years ago, has now, in his second marriage, become a model husband and father. Perry spends most of his time traveling for business and bringing back expensive gifts for his family and even for Celeste’s friends. And Ziggy’s dad is a big unknown whom the boy keeps begging his mother to identify.

And finally, the book is about community, and about people’s eagerness to condemn and ostracize outsiders. This is where the title pertains, as seemingly little lies can have big effects:

  • the lie told about Ziggy at school
  • the lie festering beneath the perfect-couple image of Celeste and Perry’s marriage
  • the lie Jane tells everyone, including herself, about the significance of Ziggy’s paternity

At the end the reader learns who was murdered, by whom, and why. But even though the resolution fits the facts, those revelations pale in comparison to the melodrama that leads up to them. Nonetheless, the characters are well developed and the portrayal of community life, especially when centered around parents and their children, is detailed and credible.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Why I Don’t Need to Like Fictional Characters

At a book group gathering a few months back a man opened the discussion with the comment, “I didn’t like this book because I just couldn’t like any of the characters.” I don’t even remember what that month’s book was because my mind took off with that comment. That was certainly not the first time I’d heard it in a book group. And if you frequent any book sites on the internet, you’ll find some variation of it all over the place.

I’ve never understood this comment. Before I heard it for the first time, the consideration of whether I liked or disliked a literary character had never even crossed my mind. To like a book, I don’t need to like its characters. But I do need to understand them.

Since the issue of the likability of fictional characters comes up periodically in book-discussion circles, among both readers and writers, let’s take a look of what some people have had to say about it. Then I’ll give you my take on this topic.

Back in 2010 Laura Miller, in a discussion of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, wrote in Salon:

All of this raises a question I’ve been wanting to ask since we started, concerning an observation people often make about Franzen’s (and many other authors’) characters, which is that they are “unlikable.” I confess, I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are “nice” and which kids are “mean.” It’s a willfully naive and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.

Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, said in a 2013 interview with Publishers Weekly:

As a writer, I subscribe to Chekhov’s world view: “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people. It’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.”

She says that reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground in high school taught her that fiction can express negative emotions, can say “unsayable things.” But at that time all the books she loved that did this were by and about men: “it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.”

And when the interviewer asked Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora [the main character in The Woman Upstairs], would you?” Messud answered, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” Then she added, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”

In response, author Jennifer Weiner amped up the discussion in I Like Likable Characters for Slate when she chose to focus on the dichotomy between “chick lit”—relatable women characters written by women writers for women readers—and “literary novels” (Weiner’s term). She suggests Messud is something of a snob in her insistence that she writes books on the serious side of the popular/literary dichotomy. Weiner takes this distinction seriously:

I’ve been lucky. No one’s ever pressured me to make my characters more likable—and, because I’m not writing literary fiction, I never felt any internal pressure to make them less likable in order to be taken more seriously.

And she has a solution for the whole issue:

Imagine a library filled with the likable and the loathsome, with froth and fun and hate and spite, with books to suit every hour and every mood. What’s not to like about that?

Kelly Braffet, author of Save Yourself and other novels, brings a refreshing sense of insight to the issue in Quit talking about likable characters!. She says she learned in high school that she doesn’t like everyone she meets and that she doesn’t expect everyone to like her. She also admits that even people she likes can become annoying, but “even then, an annoying person can still say interesting things. Their very annoyingness can be interesting.”

Braffet defines unlikable characters this way:

Unlikable characters, to me, are those who do the wrong thing because it’s easier or more fun; or, maybe even to a greater extent, those who have no idea what the right thing is, and have never really stopped to think about it.

Novelist Edan Lepucki, author of California, writes in I Just Didn’t Like Her: Notes on Likeability in Fiction, “As a reader, my only rule is that a character be interesting.” Also:

what I want to see in fictional characters, no matter the gender: I want them complex and realistic, and also surprising. And for female characters, it’s particularly important to me that they have the freedom to be whatever they need to be, whether it’s strong, or weak, or ice-cold, or vulnerable, or all of the above.

Koa Beck took to the pages of The Atlantic in Female Characters Don’t Have to Be Likable (December 2015) to celebrate that year’s crop of “novels, written by women, that feature ill-natured, brilliantly flawed female protagonists in the vein of Amy Dunne from 2012’s Gone Girl. And the reaction from readers and critics suggested that this unlikability was hardly a turnoff.”

In these books—a list that includes Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train—says Beck:

These ladies scheme, swear, rage, transgress, deviate from convention—and best of all, they seldom genuinely apologize for it. It’s the literary equivalent of the feminist catchphrase originated by Amy Poehler: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” More than being “unlikable,” these female characters directly challenge the institutions and practices frequently used to measure a woman’s value: marriage, motherhood, divorce, and career. They defy likability in their outlandish occupation of the roles to which women are customarily relegated—mother, wife, daughter—resisting sexist mythologies and social pressures. Perhaps most refreshingly, these novels aren’t so much heralding a new age of female-centric literature as they’re building on a much older English-language tradition of works about complex women.

Discussion

Perhaps the tendency to designate characters as either likable or unlikable has come from our human tendency to dichotomize, to see things and people in terms of either/or. We want them to be either good or bad, likable or unlikable, not a messy mixture of both good and bad traits. We categorize people this way because it’s easy. Once we decide which side of an “either/or” mind-set individuals fall on, we no longer have to make the effort to get to know them better.

But the beauty of reading fiction is that it can help us overcome this tendency to categorize people by introducing us to complex characters who, like us, are partly likable and partly unlikable. In fiction we get to meet way more people than we meet in real life. In fiction, we become acquainted with all kinds of people, many of whom we probably wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life. We get to know these characters and then walk away from them after we reach the bottom of the final page. One of the reasons why I read fiction is to learn about human nature. By getting to know other people, both real and fictional, I learn more about myself.

In fiction, we can safely associate with people we don’t necessarily like. Reading fiction allows us to experience people and situations we’d never encounter in our everyday lives. This is why I don’t need to like fictional characters.

But I do need to understand them. I judge a novel by the strength of its characterization, by how well the author has developed complex, believable characters from whose choices, decisions, and actions I can learn. When I read The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, I didn’t think about how unlikable the main character, Nora, is. I thought about how her life has made her desperate for human relationship, for friendship. Yes, I cringed at some of the things she did and the thoughts she expressed, but I understood her thoughts and actions. The Woman Upstairs is a good novel not because I like Nora, but because I understand how, in the context of her life, she does what she does.

And characters like Nora, who share the deliciously messy stew of both good and bad tendencies and emotions that comprise the human psyche, are not only the best teachers of human nature. They are also the most interesting characters to read about. The unreliable narrators, the ordinary people forced to confront extraordinary circumstances—these are the characters who keep me turning the pages.

Maybe this is why I like mysteries so much, because they probe the darker recesses of the human psyche. A good mystery makes us understand—certainly not like or even condone, but understand—why people do what they do. Often mysteries take us inside the heads of both a criminal and an investigator. Even if we’re able to figure out whodunit before the end, watching the investigation is as satisfying as watching the crime.

I’ve learned that, when I start a new novel, I should be careful not to pass judgment on the characters too early. I need to give the author time to turn each character in the light of experience so that I can see the reflections off all the character’s facets. If the author is very good at the writing craft, I may be meeting some new fictional characters who have something to teach me. In that case, the question of whether I like or dislike the characters evaporates.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Thoughts on “Thirteen Reasons Why”

Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why
Penguin Random House, 2007
978–1–59514–188–0

Originally published in 2007, this book recently received renewed interest when streaming service Netflix made it into a series. In fact, that’s why I bought and read it.

The story comprises 13 cassette recordings left by teenager Hannah Baker for the people who contributed to her suicide. The novel is narrated by Clay Jensen, Hannah’s would-be boyfriend, as he progresses through the 13 tales.

I’m going to let you read the book or watch the series for the details of how teenage bullying and bad behavior led to Hannah’s suicide. In place of a book review, here is my reaction to it.

I finished the book with alarmingly mixed feelings about it. My edition, a tie-in with the Netflix series, contains an ending section titled “Between the Lines: Thirteen Questions for Jay Asher,” and I had to read that section to convince myself that Asher meant for this book to have a positive message.

Yes, the novel ends with Clay feeling hope when he insists on talking to Skye so that Skye will not feel driven toward suicide, as Hannah was. But before that he felt nearly overwhelming guilt:

You were not very clear with me … I didn’t know what you were going through, Hannah … I would have helped her if she’d only let me. I would have helped her because I want her to be alive (p. 280)

When Clay had tried to talk with Hannah, she pushed him away. These kids are 15 years old, at an age when they’re learning how to interact socially. And now, with so much concern over drugs, date rape, and slut shaming, we’re emphasizing that no means no. Is it fair, then, to expect an obviously caring character like Clay to force Hannah to do something, even just talk, against her will? Despite the book’s hopeful ending, which shows that Clay has learned from Hannah’s tape, I’m bothered that Clay has been made to shoulder so much self-blame for Hannah’s death:

How many times after the party did I stand right here, when Hannah was still alive, thinking my chances with her were over? Thinking I said or did something wrong. Too afraid to talk to her again. Too afraid to try. (p. 285)

I wish Asher had found some other way to demonstrate that we should all recognize and insist on trying to help people in crisis, even when they try to push us away.

I’m not objecting to reading about an emotionally sensitive issue like suicide. Rather, I’m concerned with part of the message that this book presents as a solution.

And I’ve decided not to watch the Netflix series.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

5 Novels About Fathers

Father’s Day is upon us.

The greatest novel about fathers that I’ve ever read is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Here are five more.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

In 1959 evangelical Baptist preacher Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo to deliver God’s message. They take with them as many possessions as possible—everything from garden seeds to boxes of cake mix—only to find that they are completely unprepared for their new life. Rev. Price insists on trying to pound the round peg of his American way of life into the square hole of the African environment, refusing, for example, to plant seeds as the local inhabitants try to teach him to prevent the plants from being washed away by the area’s torrential rains.

The book is narrated alternately by Price’s wife and daughters as they describe their life in Africa over the next 30 years. Kingsolver convincingly creates a distinct, distinguishing voice for each character. The use of multiple narrators has become common in contemporary novels. This is the book I always use as my touchstone for evaluating how successfully other authors create multiple voices in their fiction.

Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin

This memorable novel tells the story of Margaret, a young woman coming of age during the 1970s in the southern state of Virginia in the U.S. Margaret is the daughter of an Episcopal priest who suffers from periodic bouts of severe depression—the melancholy of the book’s title. When Margaret was a young child, her mother left home for a vacation that gradually extended to a year before the mother was killed in an auto accident.

Despite the father’s religious vocation—and it is a strong and recurrent theme throughout the novel—this is the story of the strong relationship between a father and his daughter. Although religion figures prominently in the family’s story, the novel is never preachy or strident. One of Godwin’s strengths as a novelist is her ability to create a whole universe for her characters to inhabit, and religion here is one of the components of the fictional world. Read Father Melancholy’s Daughter if you love a beautiful story beautifully written.

& Sons by David Gilbert

A.N. Dyer is a reclusive author nearing the end of his life when he agrees to deliver the eulogy for Charles Topping, his best friend since early childhood. But during the funeral Dyer breaks down as he realizes the mistakes he has made in his own life. To try to reconnect with his family, he calls together his three sons: two middle-aged men and the 17-year-old love child whose birth broke up his marriage. When the youngest son returns for a break from his exclusive boarding school, the two older sons join him at Dyer’s swank Manhattan home. Charles Topping’s adult son Philip, who grew up circling but never truly absorbed into the famous author’s family, narrates the story of this family reunion.

As is often the case with novels about novelists, this book considers metafictional questions about the nature of fiction, the publishing world, the writing life, and who has the right to tell a particular story. At times author Gilbert seems to enjoy such considerations a bit too much—“Look what a clever writer I am!” the text often screams. As a student of literature, I enjoyed the metafictional aspects, but I also appreciated the book as what it is at its center, a story about love, friendship, and the relationships between fathers and sons.

The Chatham School Affair by Thomas H. Cook

Lawyer Henry Griswald, now in his 70s, narrates this novel about a life-changing event that occurred when he was 15 and a student at the boys’ prep school where his father served as headmaster. As a favor to a friend, his father had hired Elizabeth Channing as the school’s art teacher. From the moment she stepped off the bus in Chatham and moved into an isolated cottage near the lake, the beautiful Miss Channing drew the attention of everyone in the village. The novel gradually builds an atmosphere of foreboding that culminates in tragedy.

This book is a mystery in its probing of what really happened on that fateful day. However, it does not move at the breakneck speed of many current mystery or thriller novels. Instead, Henry Griswald takes his time thinking about the event. In a psychologically credible process he circles repeatedly around the tragedy, coming ever closer to the kernel of truth and the resulting self-knowledge at its center. In coming to understand his own involvement, Henry develops some insight into his father, with whom he always had a cold, distant relationship.

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy

Meet Bull Meecham: U.S. Marine, fighter pilot, Southerner, and absolute master of his home and family. In this autobiographical novel Conroy creates a fully developed character whom, like the fictional family members, readers will both love and hate. Nobody ever does anything well enough to please Bull. The story unfolds over the senior year of high school basketball player Ben, the oldest Meecham child. Like all members of the family, Ben constantly tries both to please his father and to avoid verbal and physical abuse.

In addition to his skill at characterization, Conroy is a great descriptive writer. The American South comes to life in this novel, which portrays a flawed human being in all his messiness while eliciting the range of conflicting emotions we often feel for the people closest to us.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown