Today’s theme? Novelists who keep readers off-balance by defying expectations with certain characters.
But before I get into that, I wanted to mention that this weekly blog and my literary-trivia book are the subjects of a roughly 16-minute podcast posted last night. The podcaster is Rebecca Budd, who’s not only a skilled/eloquent interviewer but also an excellent blogger on a variety of topics. It’s always a pleasure to converse with other book lovers — including all the commenters on this blog!
Rebecca is in Vancouver and I’m in New Jersey, so the vagaries of cross-continental WiFi cut off a few of my words here and there. But 99.9% of what I said got through. 🙂
Anyway, back to “‘I Didn’t See That Coming’ in Fiction.” A strong example comes from Harlan Coben’s starts-slow-but-gets-riveting thriller Stay Close, which I read last week. The novel — set in the sordid underbelly of my home state of New Jersey — includes two characters named…ahem…Barbie and Ken who appear to be clean-cut, caring, religious folk. In reality, they’re a scarily sicko couple who delight in working paid assignments to inflict excruciating pain on hapless people. (Although Coben’s novel was published in 2012 — four years before America’s disastrous 2016 presidential election — something about Barbie and Ken reminds me of the many supposedly pious white Christian evangelicals who support the pathologically cruel Trump.)
Another character who turns out to be different than one might initially think is Queequeg from Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick. That tattooed South Sea-born character looks fierce, and has a fierce job — harpooner on Captain Ahab’s ill-fated Pequod ship. But Queequeg actually has a heart of gold, and he and the book’s American sailor/narrator Ishmael strike up an unlikely cross-cultural friendship. (Melville is pictured above in 1861.)
Staying in the 19th-century, certain novels punctured unfortunate racial and gender tropes of the time. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, for instance, Jo March is hyper-focused on becoming a professional writer — hardly an expected ambition for a female of that era. The titular protagonist in Alexandre Dumas’ Georges is a brainy/admirable black man stuck with none of the pernicious stereotypes most authors foisted on characters of color at that time, if they included them at all. (It didn’t hurt that Dumas was of part-African descent.) And Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe is a much more three-dimensional Jewish character than seen in the vast majority of novels penned in the 1800s, though the depiction of her money-lender father Isaac is nowhere near as nuanced.
Going back another century, the title character of Henry Fielding’s semi-satirical novel Joseph Andrews (1742) resists temptation as he holds to his intention of remaining a virgin for his true love Fanny. A gender role reversal, especially for long-ago literature.
Speaking of gender surprises, the first book (One for the Money) of Janet Evanovich’s popular crime-novel series has protagonist Stephanie Plum switch from being a lingerie buyer to a…bounty hunter. It’s safe to say that’s a career change not often seen.
In Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, Humphrey van Weyden is a “soft” intellectual who’s held against his will and abused by tough-guy-with-a-screw-loose Captain Wolf Larsen when van Weyden is rescued after the ferry he was on sank. Humphrey’s transformation into an equal foe of Larsen is something I didn’t see coming.
I’ll stay with London and end by briefly taking this post into the animal realm. In that author’s The Call of the Wild, a domesticated dog becomes adept at surviving in the wild. And in White Fang, the opposite happens with a part-wolf/part-dog who is moved from the wild to civilization. Not the usual canine story arcs.
It almost goes without saying that any element of surprise is often welcome in a novel. What are some of the books that do that for you?
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 — which has a food theme — is here.