Some novels grab you from the first page or even first sentence, while others build more slowly. Sometimes so slowly — or so confusingly or so off-puttingly — that one flings the book away. (Hopefully not while reading it on an electronic device. 🙂 )
It’s often thrillers, mysteries, and other genre fiction, along with some mass-audience general fiction, that quickly grab a reader. For instance, I’ve yet to read one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels without being hooked within a paragraph or two. But some literary fiction can do that, too, with a great first sentence certainly helping — as in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye…
But this blog post will focus more on novels with less-promising starts, one of which I read last week. That was Richard Russo’s Chances Are…, a 2019 release about three male college buddies who reunite on Martha’s Vineyard when they’re all age 66. Russo is a tremendous author — his Nobody’s Fool (1993) and especially his Empire Falls (2001) are sublime — but he’s 70 and novelists usually don’t do their best work after having been published for decades. Chances Are… feels a bit forced: its starring trio at times seems more like types than three-dimensional people, and I could sense Russo’s authorial puppet strings rather than getting really immersed in the story. But I stuck with the book (when one likes an author’s previous works, that’s more likely to happen) and the novel eventually grew on me — helped by the unspooling of a seemingly unsolvable mystery about a woman the men had been friends with in college while grappling with the threat of the Vietnam draft. Not Russo’s best effort by a long shot, but ultimately a solid “B” novel.
Back in 2018, I finally read the first book in George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series. A Game of Thrones was rather confusing at first — so many characters and details to absorb. But things gradually became much more compelling.
Then there are novels that start so-so and stay so-so. Ones I’ve read recently that fit that template for me include Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (I realize it has many fervent fans, but I found it kind of “meh”) and Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way (forgivable in that it was a mediocre first novel in a crime-fiction series that would get better). Among the books I read years ago that also match the starts-and-stays-so-so criteria include Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (which is not bad but nowhere near as good as her other five novels) and Erich Maria Remarque’s Shadows in Paradise (also decent, though it was obvious Remarque was running out of steam in that final, posthumously published novel after an earlier career of All Quiet on the Western Front and other masterpieces). But there was enough in books such as the four in this paragraph that I never seriously considered abandoning them.
Finally, there are novels that a person just gives up on, although which books those are of course often varies with the reader. For instance, I started Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life a couple years ago, and found it so confusing that I abandoned it after a few chapters — yet that novel is well-regarded by many, so maybe it was just me.
As I mentioned before in this weekly blog, I tried William Faulkner’s classic The Sound and the Fury twice (separated by a number of years) and found it incomprehensible. No regrets about giving it up both times after a few-dozen pages — life is too short. I did find the Faulkner novels Light in August and As I Lay Dying to be satisfying reads.
James Patterson is a mega-selling popular author who I tried just once about five years ago. Can’t even remember the novel’s title, but I was so disgusted by an early, kind-of-gratuitous, stomach-churning murder scene that I stopped reading and Alex Cross-ed Patterson off my list. I also don’t like the fact that he has co-written many books in recent years.
Some novels you’ve read that fit the various themes of this post?
As promised in the headline, here are some 2019 statistics for this blog:
— Fifty posts, 27,835 views, 13,133 visitors, 3,332 comments, 2,590 likes, and more than 1,000 followers added for a total of 3,442 at year’s end.
— The most 2019 views by far came from the United States (19,986), followed by Australia (2,386), the United Kingdom (1,510), India (1,392), Canada (677), the Philippines (347), Germany (198), France (179), Spain (177), and Italy (163). Readers from 133 countries total!
— In 2019, the runaway most viewed post was “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Literature,” despite it being first published in 2018.
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 — my 800th since 2003! — takes a weird look ahead at 2020.