Have you ever read a novel in which the story is chugging along until the book takes a very unexpected turn?
That’s a good or bad thing, depending on the nature of the turn and how it’s handled. Surprises can be welcome and “un-boring,” but sometimes an author completely jumps the shark.
My latest encounter with a veer in the fiction sphere occurred while reading Three Junes last month. That Julia Glass novel starts off focusing on the Scottish dad Paul, a newspaperman who’s sort of interesting but not exactly Mr. Charisma. Then the second section of the book abruptly shifts to Paul’s oldest son Fenno, a gay man who left Scotland for a life in New York City. While he’s also not very dynamic, Fenno’s life and choices and interactions are more compelling to read about than Paul’s. Then, as we become used to Fenno being the protagonist, Three Junes puts the spotlight on Fern, an interesting artist type who we first met when Paul was traveling in Greece.
Going back many, many Junes — to the 19th century — we have Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit suddenly sending the English title character to America. Reportedly, Dickens did this at least partly because sales of the serialized novel’s initial installments were not going as well as those of his earlier books.
Lee Child is an Englishman who moved to America, and I experienced one of the biggest surprises of his Jack Reacher novels in Running Blind. Reacher is known as a drifter without a home or car who wanders around the U.S. after leaving the military, so it was no surprise that he happened to be in Manhattan when Running Blind began. But instead of checking in to yet another hotel, he shockingly drives to his own house in upstate New York. Turns out he inherited it from a man who was sort of a surrogate father — although Reacher does not stay domesticated for long.
Speaking of long, seeing the backstory of the Mayfair women unfold a number of chapters into Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour is not an initial surprise but then becomes one when that backstory goes on for several hundred pages. But the 300-year history is so fascinating and well told that it’s riveting to read.
Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy surprises early on when there’s virtually nothing about Rob Roy for many pages. Instead, the focus is on the character Frank Osbaldistone. In this case, my first seeing the Rob Roy movie — which put the spotlight on the title character from the start — contributed to the puzzlement.
A similar situation involved seeing the Field of Dreams film before reading the Shoeless Joe novel it was based on. I was going “what?” when J.D. Salinger showed up in the W.P. Kinsella book; he was eliminated from the movie under legal threat from the reclusive author.
Then there’s John Steinbeck’s novel-play hybrid Burning Bright, which first focuses on several circus characters. The second part disorients readers by featuring the very same characters as farmers before the third part raises our eyebrows again when the identical cast turns into a bunch of sailors.
Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin startles readers when it begins toggling between the novel itself and a fantastical/fascinating novel within the novel.
Last but not least, a number of John Irving’s novels grab your attention with odd plot twists.
What are some fictional works that take unexpected turns?
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