Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology

11 Novels That Feature Life Stories

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All these novels in some way feature the notion of life stories and identity.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

True Believers by Kurt Andersen

Where the Moon Isn’t by Nathan Filer

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkanen

The Human Part by Kari Hotakainen

The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

Fiction Film Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology

“Before I Go to Sleep”: The Film

Before I Go To Sleep: Exclusive film stills show Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth in new psychological thriller

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These emotive images depict Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman as a woman who wakes up every morning remembering nothing in the forthcoming film Before I Go to Sleep.

Exclusively released to The Independent, the pictures feature Kidman as 40-year-old Christine Lucas, who believes she is just 27 following a traumatic accident that leaves her clawing for the truth – until one day she is forced to confront new and terrifying truths.

I am certainly looking forward to this movie, to see how it presents Christine’s plight.

Fiction Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Review

“Before I Go to Sleep,” S.J. Watson: We Are What We Remember


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Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel
by S. J. Watson
HarperCollins, 2011
Kindle Edition

A woman awakens, wonders where she is, rolls over—and is shocked to see a middle-aged man wearing a wedding ring and with hairs on his back sleeping next to her. She stumbles into the bathroom, where the hand that grasps the soap doesn’t look like hers. When she looks into the mirror, a middle-aged woman she doesn’t recognize, 20 or 25 years too old to be herself, stares back at her in shock. Then the man from the bed comes into the bathroom. “I’m your husband, Ben,” he tells her, and explains that almost 20 years ago, at age 29, she had an accident that caused amnesia. Every morning he has to give her the same explanation, he says, because she loses each day’s memories when she goes to sleep at night.

The first-person narrator of these events is Christine Lucas, age 47. All she knows about her recent self is what Ben tells her before leaving for work; her own memories seem to end in her early 20s. Alone in the house and wondering what to do, she receives a phone call from a man who says that he is Dr. Nash, her doctor, and that they have been working on trying to improve her memory. She has no recollection of him but agrees to meet with him for coffee. Dr. Nash gives Christine a leather-bound book and tells her that she has been writing in as a possible way to stimulate her memory. Eager to learn something about herself, Christine opens the journal and finds three chilling words: DON’T TRUST BEN.

And so begins Christine’s journey to find out the truth about herself and her past. Each night, before going to sleep, she adds more information to the journal. Each morning Dr. Nash telephones to tell Christine to find the journal in her closet and read it. As she accumulates more information, she finds more questions than answers. And as vague snatches of memory start tantalizing her, her intuition not to trust Ben deepens.

Before I Go to Sleep is a mesmerizing page-turner, the kind that will keep the reader up all night. Who is Christine, really? What happened to cause her amnesia? And who is Ben, the man upon whom she is so dependent? Can she trust her intuition? And what will finally happen when her journal becomes too long for her to read anew every morning? The nature of the novel’s premise requires that the reader occasionally know more than Christine knows as she seeks answers to these questions, and Watson does a good job of inserting the necessary information while at the same time maintaining suspense.

Initially I read this novel on the level of the thriller that it is. But swirling just below the thriller’s surface are aspects of that most basic human question: Who am I? Christine’s drive to discover and reclaim her past is a quest for self-knowledge, for her own sense of identity: “All I want is to feel normal. To live like everybody else, with experience building on experience, each day shaping the next. I want to grow, to learn things, and from things” (p. 155). We need memories to give us a sense of the continuity of our existence. Without the knowledge of our own past, we cannot know who we are in the present. Christine realizes this as she stares at the journal containing the substance of her life: “But, I realized, these truths are all I have. They are my past. They are what makes me human. Without them, I am nothing. Nothing but an animal” (p. 160).

For Christine, finding out who she is involves rediscovering her past life experiences and the lessons she has learned from them. We all create a sense of our own identity by assembling memories of past events into a life narrative that demonstrates how we have become the person we are today. Only by reclaiming the story of her past life can Christine become a unique, independent individual. Christine realizes this near the end of the novel, when she has learned the truth about herself and her husband: “And I will tell him about this journal, that finally I am able to give myself a narrative, a life, and I will show it to him, if he asks to see it. And then I can continue to use it, to tell my story, my autobiography. To create myself from nothing” (p. 274).

This review originally appeared on Metapsychology Online Reviews.

© 2011 by Mary Daniels Brown

Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology

Introduction to Life Stories


“We live forwards but we understand backwards.”

–Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855)

Even though we may not be aware of it, we all carry within us a story about our lives that describes who we are. We’ve had experiences from which we’ve learned lessons, and from those experiences and lessons we’ve formulated a set of beliefs and values. Someone who has known the pain of being bullied at school, for example, may decide never to inflict the same pain on someone else. The story of being bullied becomes a focal point in his life story to demonstrate why he tries to treat others with kindness and compassion.

Our life story communicates who we are to both ourselves and others. Story in this context does not mean something untrue—“Oh, that’s just a story”—but rather a narrative, a sequence of events that have occurred over time. The longer we live, the more complex and layered our life story becomes.

We construct our life story in order to find meaning in our experiences and to describe how those experiences have made us the person we are now. In Western culture the process of creating a sense of self through building a life story generally begins in late adolescence or early young adulthood (roughly, ages 16 to 22). Young children may rehearse stories of specific events that have happened to them—“Remember the time I fell down Grandma’s porch steps?”—particularly with coaching from parents. Although such remembered stories help youngsters begin to develop a sense of self, children won’t begin to integrate those individual events into a larger, unified life story until they get older.

We communicate our identity through a life story because humans have a natural propensity to compose and tell stories to explain what is happening around them. (See the review of The Storytelling Animal ). This tendency toward storytelling is why conspiracy theories can gain such a foothold in the popular mind: They are stories that arise from our tendency to look for patterns and to fill in the blanks when necessary to make sense of what we perceive. Our love for stories also explains the power of stories in advertising.

Our life story represents a paradox that we all face as we grow up: We want to fit somehow into the society we live in, but we also want to carve out a unique identity, a personal sense of self. Our life story therefore has both a cultural and a personal component.

Where does our life story come from? The cultural component begins early, long before we are old enough to assemble a sequence of events into a coherent narrative. As young children we begin to assimilate unconsciously our culture’s expectations about how we should behave. These expectations include proper behavior for our gender, class, and age. Through religious education and common stories such as fairy tales and popular books we learn to fulfill such expectations as “Don’t talk back to grownups” and “Share your toys with others.”

Our cultural stories provide templates from which we begin to understand how we’re expected to live our lives. The story of Cinderella, for example, explains what happens to daughters once their fathers are no longer around to protect them and offers the solution to the problem: find a Prince Charming to marry and then live happily ever after. Although different cultures offer different story templates, all children begin at a very young age to recognize the life paths they’re expected to follow as they grow up. Just a couple of generations ago boys in the Western world assimilated stories that encouraged them to become doctors, businessmen, or astronauts. Girls, on the other hand, learned stories that taught them they could become teachers, secretaries, or nurses (but not doctors) until they fulfilled their true destiny by getting married and raising a family.

The personal component of our life story emerges as we grow up and attempt to graft our own experiences onto the cultural templates we’ve assimilated. Many individuals never realize that there might be alternative life options available that are not sanctioned by their culture; for them, the creation of a narrative identity involves choosing from the cultural menu of options, and their life narratives reinforce the dominant culture’s patterns.

But people who live outside the normative options of their culture must decide how to narrate their life story. The current movement #WeNeedDiverseBooks attempts to expand the life-story options available by featuring stories that showcase young people of both genders and of various ethnicities, ability levels, and sexual orientation succeeding in diverse pursuits. People who find no cultural models for themselves face two choices: (1) to silence the parts of their identity that are unacceptable to society, or (2) to use their life stories to contest rather than to reinforce dominant social practices.

We continue to build and alter our life story as we have more experiences. Most of us will continue to seek meaning in our lives until we lose consciousness of what’s happening around us. Our life story is an ever-evolving artifact of how one person has interacted with the world over the course of a lifetime.

What Does All This Have to Do with Fiction?

Fiction deals with the intricacies of human nature. All fictional characters have implicit life stories, and thinking about those stories can help us interpret and understand a character’s thoughts, words, and actions. The current emphasis on storytelling in all aspects of life also means that some fiction even explicitly examines the concept of characters’ life stories.

We’ll look at some examples of how life stories illuminate fiction in future posts.


Audiobooks Fiction Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Review

“The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” by Maggie O’Farrell

O’Farrell, Maggie. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox   
New York: Harcourt, 2006 
ISBN 978-0-15-101411-8  
Blackstone Audiobooks, narrated by Anne Flosnik


This novel is about family stories–in this case, the truths that don’t get told and the lies that spring up to fill the void–and how those stories reverberate through generations.

Iris Lockhart is a 30-something woman busy managing her vintage clothing shop in Edinburgh, juggling a tense relationship with her stepbrother Alex, and trying to sidestep the increasing demands of her latest married lover. Besides Alex, Iris’s only family is her paternal grandmother, Kitty, who is in the clutches of advancing Alzheimer’s disease. 

Then one day Iris receives a shocking phone call: A nearby mental institution is closing, and Iris must make arrangements for her great aunt Esme, Kitty’s sister, whom Iris has never heard of. Kitty always claimed to be an only child. However, the institution’s paperwork proves that Esme is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see a hint of her dead father’s face in Esme’s.

Iris agrees to take Esme to a residence home arranged by the institution but finds the home too appalling to leave Esme there. Iris therefore has no choice but to take Esme home for the weekend with her, to an apartment carved out of the family home in which Esme had lived before being sent to the institution more than 60 years ago, at age 16. As Esme caresses the doorknobs and looks into the well-remembered rooms, Iris tries to question her about the past.

Although the novel is short, it is not an easy read, either emotionally or stylistically. The narrative structure skips among three kinds of narration:

  1. the straightforward third-person narration of Iris’s life  
  2. the convoluted, often naive meanderings of Esme’s schizophrenic memories and thoughts  
  3. the even more disjointed and bitter memories of Kitty’s dementia

Understanding this novel requires an attentive reader able to  put together the pieces of the puzzle.

In a sudden flash of insight Iris puts all the pieces together in the book’s abrupt, dramatic climax. I would have liked to see a bit of dénouement about how Iris’s new knowledge will affect her life. Nonetheless, the novel richly repays the reader’s investment of time and effort.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox would be a good book group choice, since all readers will have their own individual take on the many themes this novel raises: truth, the subjugation of women, racial and gender stereotypes, colonialism, social propriety, the meaning of love and of family, parenting, and the treatment of mental illness.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Review

“The Knitting Circle” by Ann Hood

Hood, Ann. The Knitting Circle
New York: Norton, 2007
ISBN 0-393-05901-4
Blackstone Audiobooks, narrated by Hillary Huber

Highly recommended

This novel is all about perspective, and about the healing power of telling our stories.

When Mary Baxter’s five-year-old daughter dies suddenly of meningitis, Mary finds herself unable to read, write, go to work, or do any of the other activities that formerly filled her life. Her mother suggests that she take up knitting to occupy her hands and her mind. Reluctantly, Mary goes to see Alice, who teaches her to knit, and joins the knitting circle at Alice’s store. Over the next few months the members of the knitting circle all, one by one, tell Mary their own personal stories of pain and loss.

As I read this book, I kept wondering when Mary was going to tell the other knitters her own story. Dealing with pain and loss takes time, of course, but eventually Mary does tell her story. In the process she also reconnects with her own mother who, Mary is stunned to learn, also has her own story to tell.

A loss the size of Mary’s can seem overwhelming; we think that no one else has ever been through anything as huge as what we’re going through. But hearing other peoples’ stories can gradually give us a new perspective. We gain empathy by looking at life from their perspective. We also see that they have endured, and recognizing that truth lets us know that we too will survive. And we gain support from the sharing of stories with a group of compassionate, caring, non-judgmental people who understand what we’re going through.

The author herself experienced the sudden loss of her young daughter and afterwards took up knitting as a way to calm her spirit and soothe her soul. That is probably why the character depictions in this novel ring so poignantly true. Anyone who loves good literature with strongly drawn characters will appreciate this novel.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

(See also the review of Hood’s later memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief.)

Fiction Life Stories in Literature Review

“An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England” by Brock Clarke

Clarke, Brock. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England: A Novel Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2007 
ISBN 978-1-56512-551-3 
Random House Audio, narrated by Daniel Passer

This quirky novel is about stories–the stories we tell about our lives and about ourselves, and the stories we tell to others and to ourselves.

The story’s narrator is Sam Pulsifer, whose mother is a high school English teacher and whose father is an editor for a small press. Sam therefore grew up surrounded by books and the stories they contain. Sam’s mother made him read literary classics. For a three-year period during Sam’s childhood his father was gone, traveling around the country visiting interesting places, including the stadium of every major league baseball team. Sam knows about his father’s adventures because he regularly received postcards from his father detailing his travels. It was during his father’s absence that his mother began telling Sam intriguing stories about the Emily Dickinson house, located in their hometown.

One night when he was 18 Sam sneaked into the Emily Dickinson house for a smoke and accidentally burned the house down. There were two people, Mr. and Mrs. Coleman, in the house at the time, and they died in the fire. Sam spent 10 years in prison. When he was released he went back to his parents’ house for a few months, but things just didn’t seem the same there; he could tell that his parents didn’t really want him around. So Sam went off to college, where he majored in Packaging Science. He met and married Anne Marie and had two children. Sam told Anne Marie that his parents were dead–that they had died in a house fire. Then one day a man turns up at Sam’s house and announces that he’s Thomas Coleman, son of the couple who had died in the Emily Dickenson house fire. Thomas tells Anne Marie the truth about her husband’s past, and she throws Sam out.

When Thomas Coleman confronts Sam, the thing that really infuriates him is the particular lie Sam had told Anne Marie. By telling her that his parents had died in a house fire, Sam had commandeered Thomas’s story and tried to pass it off as his own. Because of this lie, the story of the perfect life Sam thinks he has found begins to unravel. Sam returns to his parents’ house, where he finds things have changed dramatically since he was last there about 10 years earlier. In the meantime, someone starts setting fires to the houses of other writers in New England. Sam decides to find out who this arsonist is.

That this book is about the power of stories becomes evident early on. At his trial for burning down the Emily Dickinson house, Sam protests that it was an accident and that all the stories his mother had told him prompted him to break into the house. At sentencing, the judge told Sam to ponder the following question while serving his sentence:

“It’s an interesting question, is it not? Can a story be good only if it produces an effect? If the effect is a bad one, but intended, has the story done its job? Is it then a good story? If the story produces an effect other than the intended one, is it then a bad story? Can a story be said to produce an effect at all? Should we expect it to? Can we blame the story for anything? Can a story actually do anything at all? . . . For instance, Mr. Pulsifer, can a story actually be blamed for arson and murder?” (p. 71)

When Sam returns to his parents’ house after Anne Marie kicks him out, he makes up a story to explain to himself the changes he finds there. When he sets out to discover who is now setting fire to writers’ houses, he consciously patterns his behavior after that of famous detectives he’s read about in novels. During his investigation he meets a professor of American literature who hates literature because she fears becoming a character in a story, particularly one of Willa Cather’s female characters or Mark Twain’s Aunt Polly. There are numerous allusions to literature and some mild satire. Harry Potter devotees, although not explicitly named, take a hit. And, at one point, Sam visits Book Warehouse, where he finds a book group discussing a book in the cafe: “They weren’t talking about the book, not exactly; that’s the first thing I found out. Instead they were talking about how they felt” (p. 83). The title of the book under discussion is Listen, and the dust jacket asks readers to ponder questions such as “How does this book make you feel about the Human Condition?” (p. 85). From the cafe Sam wanders into the store’s memoir section:

After browsing for a while, I knew why it had to be so big: who knew there was so much truth to be told, so much advice to give, so many lessons to teach and learn? Who knew that there were so many people with so many necessary things to say about themselves? I flipped through the sexual abuse memoirs, sexual conquest memoirs, sexual inadequacy memoirs, alternative sexual memoirs. I perused travel memoirs, ghostwritten professional athlete memoirs, remorseful hedonist rock star memoirs, twelve-step memoirs, memoirs about reading (A Reading Life: Book by Book). There were five memoirs by one author, a woman who had written a memoir about her troubled relationship with her famous fiction-writer father; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her mother; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her children; a memoir about her troubled relationship with the bottle; and finally a memoir about her more loving relationship with herself. There were several memoirs about the difficulty of writing memoirs, and even a handful of how-to-write-a-memoir memoirs: A Memoirist’s Guide to Writing Your Memoir and the like. (p. 88)

Much of this novel’s literary self-consciousness is humorous. But at the end the novel takes a serious turn when Sam, now wiser, undertakes the work of writing his life story. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling the ending. But An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England illuminates how we all use story to make sense of our lives and, finally, of ourselves.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown