When Famous Novels Meet, or Don’t Meet, Expectations

In 2011, I wrote a blog post about whether famous novels I belatedly read after many years met the pent-up “great expectations” I brought to them. I covered books such as Beloved, Don Quixote, East of Eden, Ivanhoe, and The Age of Innocence.

I thought I’d revisit that theme by discussing some famous novels I finally got to since then. I’ll start with The Outsiders (which I finished last week) and also mention (alphabetically by title) A Confederacy of Dunces, Doctor Zhivago, Ethan Frome, Fahrenheit 451, Gorky Park, Of Human Bondage, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Rabbit, Run, Silas Marner, The Big Sleep, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Last of the Mohicans, The Portrait of a Lady, The Secret History, The Stranger, and Villette.

The Outsiders (1967) is a modern young-adult classic, so I figured it would be pretty good. But S.E. Hinton wrote it while still a teen (as she was in the above photo), so I figured it wouldn’t be THAT good. I was wrong. It’s very well written, features a number of compelling characters, and has lots to say about youth angst, friendship, dysfunctional families, peer pressure, class divisions, and more. I was impressed.

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces? A weird book, but funny as hell — with quirky, eccentric characters and lots of New Orleans ambience. Worth waiting for.

I found Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago sweeping, romantic, and sad. Didn’t totally love it, but liked it a lot.

Ethan Frome is different than some other Edith Wharton books in featuring non-rich characters in Massachusetts rather than wealthy ones in New York City. It’s a downbeat novella that packs a feverish, emotional wallop.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 deserves its reputation as one of the most memorable dystopian novels.

Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park is a thriller that delivers in all kinds of ways — tense plot, great protagonists, great villains, excellent Russian atmosphere. Plus it spawned seven sequels nearly as good.

Of Human Bondage was W. Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece — and that’s saying a lot, because he wrote a number of terrific novels. It mostly lives up to the hype, though one does wonder how protagonist Philip could stay in love for so long with a character as unlikable as Mildred.

One Hundred Years of Solitude? A tour de force by Gabriel Garcia Marquez that deserves its reputation as one of the 20th century’s best novels, though it’s sometimes a bit confusing to read.

John Updike’s writing in Rabbit, Run can’t be questioned, but I found the protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom to be grating and sexist enough to not really enjoy the novel as much as I would’ve liked.

George Eliot’s Silas Marner has a reputation in some quarters as a tedious read, but I found it wonderful and heartwarming. And so short for an Eliot novel that it’s a very good introduction to that fabulous author for people wanting to try her work.

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep? Lived up to its reputation for excellent, noirish, hardboiled crime fiction. And Humphrey Bogart was born to play private eye Philip Marlowe in the movie version.

Leo Tolstoy’s melancholy The Death of Ivan Ilyich is one of several examples of how that author rocked the novella in addition to lengthy books such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

The Last of the Mohicans is James Fenimore Cooper’s best-known novel, and it’s quite good, but I have to rate The Deerslayer (of the same “Leatherstocking” series) higher.

Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady doesn’t disappoint — a sublime, poignant work written before the author got a little too dense and wordy with some of his late classics.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is impressive for a debut novel, but it at times feels a bit too insular and contrived as it focuses on a small group of obsessive college students. I much prefer Tartt’s later The Goldfinch.

Albert Camus’ The Stranger is often mesmerizing, occasionally unsatisfying, and quite unusual.

Finally, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette has a number of riveting moments while also dragging in spots. The author’s earlier Jane Eyre is a much more compulsive read, and it probably didn’t help that Charlotte was depressed by the deaths of sisters Emily and Anne while writing Villette.

Your reactions to some famous novels when you finally got around to reading them? Did they meet, or not meet, your expectations?

Ray Bradbury mentioning Fahrenheit 451 on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life game show in 1956:

My 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 — a too-much-rain-inspired satire — is here.

Readers Are Lucky When They Find Characters Who Are Plucky

Today’s topic is plucky protagonists — characters who, despite difficulties, remain mostly resilient and optimistic and good-natured until they sometimes (not always) achieve success.

My inspiration for this piece was my 11-year-old daughter Maria and her softball teammates, who had been overwhelmed this spring — losing their first four games 16-8, 22-4, 20-2, and 16-6. This is Maria’s fourth year of rec softball (she was previously on third-to-fifth-grade squads that won quite a few games), but a number of her current teammates had little or no experience with the sport. Plus they’ve been mostly playing teams from towns with much stronger softball programs.

But Maria (shown speeding to third base yesterday in the above photo) and her fellow Wildcats were still having fun, trying hard, displaying a good attitude, and not blaming each other for fielding mistakes, striking out, and so on. They were doing the best they could, and sometimes made great plays and sometimes hit the ball hard.

Then came yesterday’s fifth game of the season, which…well, I’ll wait till the end of this blog post to give you the results.

Plucky fictional characters who come to mind include those in the two novels I most recently read.

One of the books is Mrs. Pollifax Pursued, which is among the 14 seriocomic Dorothy Gilman novels starring an older woman who does freelance spy work for the CIA. Mrs. Pollifax faces obstacles because of her age, gender, lack of spy training when younger, etc. But she’s very smart, congenial, cool under pressure, usually makes good decisions, and doesn’t let mistakes get her down too much.

The other book is Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which stars child of privilege Juan “Johnnie” Rico. He decides to enlist in a futuristic army, and fouls up several times during training and early missions, but generally maintains an excellent attitude and eventually meets with great success. A plucky guy.

Stephanie Plum of Janet Evanovich’s many mystery novels also finds it tough going at first as she tries to learn the ropes of bounty hunting. But she sticks to it with plenty of courage and humor.

Plucky characters are of course easy to root for, even in cases when they’re not doing totally admirable things. For instance, Heinlein’s sci-fi novel can be disturbingly militaristic.

And I should note that the term “plucky” can be seen as patronizing, but I think it’s a more positive word than that. For instance, the title character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is smart, stoic, independent, and more — but I would also praise her with the “plucky” adjective.

Penelope Keeling of Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers is plucky as well — going on with her life, with mostly an upbeat attitude, despite experiencing tragedy as a young woman and health issues in the novel’s present.

Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings deserves the “p” word, too, as does his traveling comrade Samwise Gamgee. That has something to do with their size — they’re both short-in-height hobbits — but has more to do with their bravery as they do their part to try to save Middle-earth amid friends and enemies who are usually bigger, stronger, and in some cases have special powers.

Size is also an element of pluckiness for Amy Dorrit, the titular character of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Plus she makes the best of a bad situation (her father is in debtors’ prison for a long time) — managing to earn crucial money and helping to keep the Dorrit family together.

Your favorite characters who fit this topic?

Oh, my daughter Maria’s team — in their fifth game yesterday — finally won for the first time this season, 14-11. One player hit a grand slam, and Maria got the save — coming in as a relief pitcher with the bases loaded and one out to throw out a runner at the plate and then strike out the final batter.

My 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 — about teachers without a new contract, a history-wrecking decision, and more — is here.

Characters With Special Powers

Reading literature can be a magical experience — sometimes literally.

Yes, some novels feature protagonists with powers beyond that of mere mortals. An obvious example includes the witches and wizards in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but many other fictional works and genres also include characters who do astounding things.

One such genre is magic realism. So we have someone like Clara in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits who’s clairvoyant and telekinetic, and Remedios in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude who eventually ascends into the sky…without boarding an airplane.

Which reminds me of how Margarita in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita flies with some help from the devil. Certainly, special powers can be used for good or for evil — or some combination of the two, because Margarita is a sympathetic character in Bulgakov’s book while the devil unsurprisingly isn’t.

Sci-fi is also well-represented when it comes to characters possessing unusual abilities, as with the “hyperempathetic” Lauren in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower who can literally feel the pain of others.

Which reminds me of Matty in Lois Lowry’s Messenger who can heal others without the least bit of medicine — albeit at some danger to himself. Indeed, having special powers can be a double-edged sword that might make readers feel uneasy about a character’s future in addition to reveling in the wish-fulfullment of seeing those powers in action.

We also have Johnny in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone who wakes up psychic after being in a coma.

Living for an incredibly long time is also kind of magical. The vampires and other characters in various Anne Rice novels, the more-than-2,000-year-old Lazarus Long in various Robert A. Heinlein sci-fi books, the 250-year-old High Lama in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, the nearly 300-year-old Cormac in Pete Hamill’s Forever, and so on.

And, getting back to wizards, we can’t forget the powers of Gandalf (pictured atop this blog post) in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Your favorite characters who fit this topic?

My 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 — about an ugly hotel and some election issues — is here.