When Novels Have a Lot in Common

Reading literature can sometimes be a serendipitous experience. With no particular plan in mind — the novels I was interested in just happened to be available at my local library at the same time — I read two books back-to-back and found they featured many similarities amid their differences. Heck, even the authors have some things in common.

The novels? Big Little Lies (2014) and Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012). The authors? Liane Moriarty and Maria Semple. The similarities? First I’ll discuss a few commonalities in the writers’ lives, then I’ll dive deeper into the two books.

Moriarty is Australian and Semple is American, but they’re both in their early 50s. Semple now lives in Seattle, but is a California native associated with that state’s entertainment biz from her years as a TV producer and TV writer. Meanwhile, Moriarty’s Big Little Lies was turned into a TV miniseries that switched the book’s setting from Australia to…California.

On to the novels. Both feature a variety of affluent characters, with some not-affluent ones sprinkled in. Both have school settings (Big Little Lies more so). Both include a number of entitled parents. Both have some parents too involved in their kids’ lives. Both have several of those parents — usually the mothers — battling each other in various ways. Both novels, despite those battling moms, have good things to say against sexism. Both books, being published this decade, are full of tech references. Both address social issues in major or minor ways — for instance, domestic violence in Big Little Lies and homelessness in Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Both have mystery elements — a parent’s death in Big Little Lies and, well, where did the brilliant/beleaguered/damaged Bernadette go?

Yet there are of course some differences in the two novels’ content and approach. The riveting Big Little Lies contains a very nice amount of humor and satire, but seriousness is pretty prominent and many of the expertly drawn characters are as three-dimensional as can be. The lampoon-laced Where’d You Go, Bernadette is ultra-clever (sometimes too clever?) and absolutely hilarious, but the book didn’t feel as “deep” or as full of genuine emotion as Big Little Lies — until Semple’s novel showed a lot more heart in its second half.

I’d give the intricately constructed (emails, flashbacks, etc.!) Where’d You Go, Bernadette an A next to an A+ for Big Little Lies. I’ve so far read just two novels (also The Hypnotist’s Love Story) by Moriarty, and she’s astoundingly good — one of the very best contemporary authors.

Have you read Big Little Lies, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, or other novels by Moriarty and Semple? If so, what did you think? More generally, are there novels (perused consecutively or not, and by any authors — not just Moriarty and Semple) that struck you as having an unusual number of similarities?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which looks at the death of a movie theater and threats to several stately old homes, is here.

27 thoughts on “When Novels Have a Lot in Common

  1. I haven’t read Big Little Lies but I read Where’d You Go Bernadette as well as Today Will Be Different. I loved them both. I met Maria Semple last year when she spoke at Barnes & Noble.

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    • Great that you got to meet Maria Semple, Kira!

      And nice that you liked those two Semple novels! I read her first book, “This One Is Mine.” It was okay, but “Bernadette” was much better. She obviously has hit her stride as a novelist.

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  2. Wandering the interwebs fruitlessly in search of an Ezra Pound quote on the topic, I found that in the 18th century, Italian dramatist Carlos Gozzi declared there only only 36 basic plots. My memory of Pound’s list is that it’s shorter by a lot, but perhaps not so short as a modern calculation, that made by Christopher Booker in his self-explanatory book, “The Seven Basic Plots”(2004). According to Booker these seven are: 1.Overcoming the Monster, 2.Rags to Riches, 3.The Quest, 4.Voyage and Return, 5.Rebirth, 6.Comedy and 7.Tragedy.

    Which brings me to our weekly topic, and how inevitable it is therefore, that so many books can be said to be similar to so many others, very much including books by the same author– see Horatio Alger et al.

    I’ve read three books which are not related by author, but by outgrowth, from one to another:

    1)”The Island of Doctor Moreau”, by HG Wells, an unsettling novel which, like many of Wells’ things, seems to promise something larger than it delivers by book’s end. Still what it does deliver is is haunting, and its beginning especially is well-done. The island is the terrible playground of a doctor driven from professional ranks and civilized society by his peculiar and cruel experimentation, which has to do with transforming animals through radical surgery and glandular extracts into subhumans. The natives get more than restless, and the narrator, a passenger thrown bodily from a freighter supplying Moreau’s island, must fashion an escape.(The Charles Laughton film, Island of Lost Souls, to my way of seeing things actually improves on the Wells’ story)

    2)”Invention of Morell” by Adolfo Bioy Casares, a novel by a Borges contemporary, concerning the experiences of an escaped prisoner on a remote and seemingly uninhabited island, which turns out to be, after all, populated by engineered phantoms, the remnants of dead people captured in all their essentials by Dr. Morell’s recording machines, which by means of a perpetual energy supply, project the phantoms, three-dimensional and full of apparent sound and even emotion, in various places on the island, where they do what they did on an island retreat one holiday long ago, forever. The prisoner eventually learns how to insinuate himself into and among the projections, conducting a love affair with one phantom, and after some years, dying there himself with the hope that his soul will enter the projecting machines and join the others. The similarity of the names Moreau and Morell are intentional…

    3) The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann by Angela Carter. Doctor Hoffmann (a nod to a father of the fantastic genre, ETA Hoffmann) is a rebel inventor who reorders dreams and finally the waking reality of the citizens of a large city now ruled over by the Minister of Determination, who, by means of logic and definition, fights only somewhat effectually against Hoffmann’s exotic proliferations of fantasy and eroticism that increasingly perplex, bewilder the citizenry and overwhelm agreeable reality. In a desperate effort to defeat Hoffmann, the narrator is sent in search of him, for the purposes of assassination, into wild places and dreamscapes, some seemingly beyond the doctor’s territory of influence, some very much the habitations of allies or past associates. The story ends with the destruction of the broadcasting dishes, powered by erotic energy generated in Hoffmann’s labs, and the narrator becomes a national hero, who in old age, has written the story of his life during that surreal time– which is Carter’s book.

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    • Superb summaries of those three books, jhNY, and I can definitely see the similarities — especially between the first two. All three works sound fascinating (I’ve just read the first).

      It occurred to me, with all the magic of a sort you described in your comment, that two titanic novels of the magic realism genre have some similarities — Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Isabel Allende’s later “The House of the Spirits.” Both — in addition to all the magic realism flourishes — are complex, multi-generational, mix the personal and the political, etc.

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      • The first two are more similar than the first and the third, but two and three are similar to each other more than would be coincidental…

        I have not read Allende’s book, only Marquez, and can only add that, to a Colombian historian I knew very well, many of Marquez’s scenes and tales within OHYOS were familiar, being local legends in origin, if amplified and embroidered and altered for the purposes of the author.

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        • Upon rereading your second and third descriptions, I see that you’re right!

          Interesting that “One Hundred Years of Solitude” echoed local legends — making “The House of the Spirits” a bit of an echo of an echo. πŸ™‚ Of course, many novels draw indirectly or directly on previous sources…and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the author puts some original stamp on things.

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  3. β€œThe sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us.”

    One of my favourite quotes from “Bernadette.” Maria Semple absolutely nailed Seattle culture, from the weather to the Microsoft/tech dominance in the city. Seattle culture is something that you have to experience in order to “get it”…I lived there for 10 years, so I know.

    “Bernadette” is wonderfully written, very quirky, and encompasses everything you love (or not love:) about Seattle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice to hear from you, Ana! Excellent comment!

      Maria Semple did do a GREAT job describing Seattle’s culture and other aspects. (Not that I know Seattle well — I’ve just visited twice, but have read a certain amount about the city.) Semple seems to have a love-hate relationship with Seattle, and that really comes through in the book.

      I WAS a little bothered by the way Semple had Bernadette react to homelessness in the city — though I realize the character didn’t want to be around most people of all kinds, homeless or otherwise.

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      • I think Semple was mocking the *tolerance* that so many people in Seattle claim to have. Sure, liberal-minded people want more affordable housing in the city….but don’t want a tax increase. Yes, they support the city converting abandoned properties into housing/shelter for homeless residents….just as long as those units are not placed in their neighbourhoods.

        Bernadette’s reaction to the homeless population is not unheard of. The city is full of *tolerant* people who do not practice what they preach.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well said! Yes, Maria Semple may have been satirizing the not-always-tolerant attitudes of “tolerant” people. It’s sometimes hard to know when novelists think or don’t think the same way as their characters do. πŸ™‚

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          • I’ve read “Bernadette” twice now, and I actually don’t remember her thoughts on the homeless, or it may be that I chose to block that out of my liberal brain. I do agree with you, Dave, that sometimes we ascribe certain things to authors that may not be what they believe in themselves.

            One last thought on this blog, the plots of all six of Jane Austen’s novels are similar in many ways. There is of course the young single woman who is destined to fall in love with and marry the main male character, whether rich or not (though most are). All of the action that occurs takes place in a small English town/village, other than certain novels that take the heroine to London, Bath or Lyme. If one wants to analyze this, it probably was because Austen herself grew up in such villages or towns, and even Bath. There is also the (or several) comic foils, e.g., Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet (Pride & Prejudice), Mr. and Mrs. Elton (“Emma”), both of Anne Eliott’s sisters and especially their father (“Persuasion”), Aunt Norris (“Mansfield Park), John Thorpe (“Northanger Abbey”), and Fanny Dashwood (“Sense and Sensibility”). I’m sure I missed many but you get the drift. For someone in such a small universe that Austen wrote in, it’s remarkable that she kept coming up in novel after novel all of these diverse characters, whether admirable, comical or just plain evil.

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  4. Dave, it’s been a miserable day going through the prep for a combination endoscopy/colonoscopy tomorrow, so all I’ve had today were some scrambled eggs for breakfast (which now seem heavenly to me), a snack of Jello for lunch, chicken broth for dinner, a cup of a vile tasting medication, followed by a couple more cups of chicken broth, and another three to go before I go to sleep tonight — followed by another cup of the vile tasting medication and more cups of water or broth in the morning, starting at 6:00 a.m. Ugh!

    Anyway, I was very happy to read your post tonight, which definitely cheered me up, since I had mentioned both these authors so often in the past couple of years. As you know, Liane Moriarty is my favorite novelist out there today and I’ve read all her books at least twice, except her very latest, but I’m sure I’ll read that one again if I ever get out of this latest reading drought I’ve been in (which I’ve decided I am going to blame Trump for). My two favorites are “What Alice Forgot,” and “The Husband’s Secret,” although that can change depending on my mood at the time, and I also have a special place in my heart for “Three Wishes.” I was amazed at how well “Big Little Lies” did at the Emmys, but I still don’t think I’ll watch the televised series, especially loving the book so much — although who knows?

    As for Semple, I dearly loved “Bernadette,” but I didn’t feel compelled to read her debut novel, which I know you weren’t especially fond of. I have read her latest book, but to be honest I think I liked it; however, I couldn’t tell you what it was even about. That may be because at the moment I’m food-deprived! πŸ™‚

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    • Colonoscopy prep is the worst — worse than the procedure itself, during which one is blissfully knocked out by anesthesia. Good luck with all that, Kat Lib! At least the procedure can save lives (I’ve had many — procedures, not lives — because my mother had, and survived, colon cancer). Still, as patients starve themselves to get ready, why can’t they make the prep “medicine” taste better?

      I can understand why Liane Moriarty is your favorite living author. She’s a magnificent writer who touches all the bases — great prose, pitch-perfect dialogue, totally believable characters, interesting plots/situations, humor, seriousness, social awareness, etc. I’ll definitely be reading more of whatever I can find of hers in my local library.

      Maria Semple’s debut novel was indeed so-so — kind of shallow, I thought. She took a quantum leap with “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Sounds like her third novel was not as good, whether or not it’s your food deprivation that’s “talking.” πŸ™‚

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      • Reading this post and the comments I’m torn. Moriarity sounds divine and I love Australia and want to go there someday so I believe I must check out her work. I’m very disappointed they miniseries was filmed in California instead of Australia since I love Australian television productions. Just started season 5 of A Place to Call Home. On the other hand, Semple sounds shallow which definitely has an appeal to my nature. What to do? I’ll have to check them both out! But I’ll go for Moriarity first. Good luck Kat Lib on your procedure – it’s the worst!

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        • Thank you, Shallow Reflections, for your seriocomic comment!

          I’d love to visit Australia, too. The closest I’ve gotten was my wife teaching two years in New Zealand — before I met her. So, not close… πŸ™‚

          I haven’t watched the TV version of “Big Little Lies,” but I’m also disappointed the setting was switched to California. A typical American thing to do — 😦 — and not right, plus the Australia setting was one of the appeals of the novel. Which would be a great book wherever it had been set, but still…

          Maria Semple is good, but I’d advise anyone to check out Liane Moriarty first. She’s an extraordinary novelist.

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          • Dave and Shallow Reflections, I’m going to respond to both of you. I should have mentioned in my posts above that I was having my 2nd endoscopy and my 5th colonoscopy, due to having reflux and having had a large polyp somewhere in my colon within the last 18 years or so. Other than some small anomalies in both my upper and lower GI tract, nothing to be alarmed about, depending on the results of the biopsies.

            So, getting back to literature, I was disappointed as well about “Big Little Lies” being switched from Australia to California, especially since Nicole Kidman is originally from Australia. Shallow Reflections, if you decide to read any Liane Moriarty novel, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, even though I know we all have different tastes. She has such a way with words, a wonderful sense of humor, yet many of her characters go through such pathos it’s difficult to take in. I think my first Moriarty novel was “What Alice Forgot,” which I loved so dearly, yet I felt compelled to continue with all of her novels and love each and everyone of them in turn, for somewhat different reasons!

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            • Glad there’s probably nothing to be alarmed about, Kat Lib!

              Yes, irony on top of irony setting the TV version of an Australia-based novel in California even as the miniseries co-starred a native of Australia.

              Your second paragraph would make almost anyone eager to read Liane Moriarty! πŸ™‚ I can’t wait to get to “What Alice Forgot” and “The Husband’s Secret”!

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