Odd Couples, Odd Trios, Odd…

Kate QuinnMany novels of course contain character groupings — family members, or friends, or work partners, or other associations. Interesting interactions often result, and things can get even more interesting when the people are very different from each other.

That came to mind last week while reading Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network. Her gripping historical novel — which has parallel World War I and post-World War II story lines that eventually merge in memorable fashion — features the coming together of three characters who at first couldn’t seem more different: bitter, foul-mouthed British/French WWI spy Eve Gardiner, pregnant-American-college-student-in-Europe Charlie St. Clair, and Scottish WWII veteran/ex-convict Finn Kilgore. They not only appear to have few personality traits in common, but Eve treats Charlie worse than dismissively. But eventually the relationships take a turn, and we also find out that Eve and Charlie share something/someone awful in their pasts despite their 35-year age gap. Can that something/someone be exorcised?

Yes, characters who are very different can often (not always) have unexpected similarities that enable them to surprisingly get along. Or maybe that’s not so unexpected and surprising — heck, we’re all human, many of us suffer, and we all want some happiness. Still, when thrust-together disparate characters don’t get along, there’s a huge potential for riveting drama and fireworks: fights, insults, simmering hatred, etc. All of which is frequently more compelling than when people do get along.

Kate Quinn also created an odd grouping in her subsequent, even better novel, The Huntress. Those joining to hunt a Nazi woman (Annaliese) guilty of many murders include Russian aviator Nina, British ex-journalist Ian, American WWII vet Tony, and a Boston-based photographer (Jordan) suspicious of her stepmother: the aforementioned Annaliese, who hid her Nazi identity when fleeing to the U.S. and marrying Jordan’s father. Eve Gardiner even has a cameo!

In Toni Morrison’s Sula, the title character is outgoing, independent, and unconventional, while the novel’s co-star Nel is a quieter, more traditional sort. They are childhood friends despite those differences, but eventually grow far apart — for reasons such as a tragedy they jointly witnessed as kids, and, when they’re adults, Sula gravely betraying Nel.

Then there are the brothers Udayan and Subhash in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. The former is a revolutionary, the latter is content to live a lower-key life pursuing his education. Subhash is also more responsible, eventually marrying Udayan’s pregnant wife Gauri after Udayan is murdered by paramilitary police. Subhash and Gauri end up being a major mismatch as well.

Very different types are frequently placed together in the military (think Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny), the workplace (think Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight), the classroom (think L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables), and shared apartments (think Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman). Of course there’s also Neil Simon’s iconic play The Odd Couple, about two complete opposites (neurotic neat-freak Felix Unger and fun-loving slob Oscar Madison) sharing a rental after their respective marriages fall apart.

Disparate groups can also involve different species, especially when one gets into the sci-fi or fantasy realm. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his subsequent trilogy The Lord of the Rings feature hobbits, humans, wizards, dwarves, and elves on epic quests. That cross-cultural collaboration creates a good deal of tension, though the characters basically get along enough to do what they need to do.

In the animal world, there are the two dogs and one cat who together try to find their way home through 300 miles of Canadian wilderness in Sheila Branford’s The Incredible Journey. Of course, it’s not unheard of for canines and felines to get along. 🙂

Novels and characters you’d like to mention that/who fit this theme?

Speaking of trios, there was the three-person rock band Rush — whose drummer Neil Peart unfortunately died January 7 at the age of 67. He was widely considered the best rock drummer in history (I agree) and was also an exceptional lyricist — as well as a book author and voracious reader. Some Rush songs contained literary references; one of them was “Xanadu,” inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” poem. Here’s that tune featuring Peart, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee — all virtuosos on their instruments. I got interested in Rush about five years ago at the urging of former frequent commenter here “Ana,” and then backtracked to listen to the band’s work from the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s. “Xanadu” is from 1977, when Rush tended to do longer tracks.

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

44 thoughts on “Odd Couples, Odd Trios, Odd…

  1. “Best rock drummer in history”– John Bonham deserves serious consideration, perhaps later, seeing as this assertion is attached to the passing of Mr. Peart.

    There are, of course, other contenders… though ‘rock as a category I perhaps over-associate with pop music post-Woodstock– a distinction that others may not find agreeable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • True — John Bonham of Led Zep is up there, and was one of Neil Peart’s influences. But I thought Peart’s drumming was just as powerful and more intricate. Plus Peart had a much longer career, and was an excellent lyricist to boot. Perhaps the only thing Peart lacked was a bit of a light touch at times.

      Of course, all this is significantly subjective. There are major arguments for Bonham, Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and a few others. 🙂

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      • My old (and simplistic) rule of thumb: if, as a young rock drummer starting out, you learned every recording of John Bonham, down to the very last lick, you’d get hired immediately. If, on the other hand you learned every last lick of Moon and Baker, you’d still need to learn Bonham before you’d get hired.

        Liked by 1 person

          • I am fond of Mr. Baker’s general idiosyncratic approach, more so than Moon’s, though Moon did sincerely seem to hew to toward an ungoverned (and possibly ungovernable) enthusiasm I associate with his era. His great early love was surf music, which, especially for an English drummer, must be close to a unique devotion.

            There’s a tune of Jeff Beck’s “Truth” lp titled ‘Beck’s Bolero’– an instrumental thing of space movie theme music, sans movie. Moon is the drummer, and bangs along with such force that, by song’s end, his accompaniment is notable for its total lack of cymbals– he’d knocked every single one of them down in the course of the recording! More notable: you hardly notice they’re gone– the track is a tour-de-force regardless.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Just listened to “Beck’s Bolero.” That IS some serious Keith Moon drumming in the middle/latter part of the song. Didn’t know about his surf-music fandom!

              I guess one advantage to Ginger Baker’s drumming was his jazz and African-music leanings in addition to his hard-rock prowess. Didn’t seem like a very nice guy, but that’s a matter other than his drum talents.

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              • I think Baker had a sign up in his own house: ‘Beware of Mr. Baker’. I think he and it were sincere.

                His jazz leanings made him able to anticipate where the improvisation was going– neat trick.

                Liked by 1 person

  2. Have just finished a nightmarish bit of fictional psychosis titled “Blackjack”, by Andrew Vachss, who has earned glowing reviews from reputable places and people (I suspect for other work; he is a very prolific sort, given his long long list of titles). Violent and compelling, but crazy. Irreducibly crazy. And yet, I am confident that I might well read more Vachss if I’m in the wrong mood. The compelling part is real.

    Any rate, germane to the week’s topic, its main character, expressionless Cross, has surrounded himself with a motley crew of misfits who commit virtuous crimes– mostly murders– for money and to restore moral balance to the universe or something. There’s a Chickasaw Indian named Tracker, a huge and muscular man named Buddha, a huger Latin faux-transvestite named Princess, a Black assassin named Ace who cannot be told by sight from a caricature of a pimp, and I’m probably leaving out several but will not cross the room to the pile whereon “Blackjack” is laid to prize them out…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Howdy, Dave!

    I got your Odd Couple right here! Since the advent of “Dave Astor on Literature” in July 2014, I have read a whole mess of novels, but only two that did not arrive here at the Cabin in the Sky during that time due to endorsements made either by you or by other members of the DAOLiterati: Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists” (recommended by CK One) and Kate Quinn’s “The Alice Network” (recommended by The Famous Mikey Z).

    So: Thanks!

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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    • You’re welcome, J.J.!

      In homage to the two books you mentioned, I’ll say it’s hard to believe I’ve done this “imperfect” blog for a great “network” of readers/commenters for five-and-a-half years. 🙂

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              • I wouldn’t be surprised either, after I heard tell in a graduate literature seminar that when he was writer in residence at UVA, he gave an offhanded specious response to a grad student’s question about his work, and that person based a dissertation on it. But who knows? Maybe that story is apocryphal!

                Liked by 1 person

                  • While operating a shovel! Writing on a board laid over a wheel borrow!

                    I have a feeling that the story was made up for the amusement of Mr. Faulkner, at the expense of everybody who believed it, or felt they had to pretend to believe it.

                    He told other stories, apart from the ones he wrote, such as when he worked in the Oxford MS post office and claimed to have thrown mail in the trash of everybody who he didn’t like, forcing them to fish it out of the can out front. When he quit (or was fired) he claimed to have told his superiors he was “tired of being at the beck and call of every son of a bitch with three cents for a stamp”, or words to that effect.

                    As a drinking man, and a Southern man, I believe he liked a good story better than anything, especially one that could raise a good laugh.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • VERY interesting, jhNY! An expert novelist needs to have a good imagination. 🙂

                      Such as saying stamps cost three cents. They couldn’t have ever been that cheap, could they? 😉

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  4. Diversity brings together ideas, patterns, plans that lead to unpredictable outcomes. A few years ago, someone said I must read “Devine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” They had already made the movie, but books give so much more drama. Friendship, kinships are made with the most unlikely connections. Here is the quote that resonated with me: “You know how some people, when they’re together, they somehow make you feel more hopeful? Make you feel like the world is not the insane place it really is?”
    ― Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Clanmother!

      Loved your line: “Diversity brings together ideas, patterns, plans that lead to unpredictable outcomes.” Certainly makes fiction — and real life — more interesting…

      And, yes, some people make one feel better about the world. They’re MVPs (Most Valuable Persons).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. More books for my TBR list, especially The Huntress. I’ve read a lot of great comments about this book and I need to read it. I’d like to tout a book by an author friend that perfectly fits this category. Sahar Abdulaziz’ “Unlikely Friends” includes an odd assortment of misfits: A cranky librarian in mid-life, Irwin Abernathy; an unhappy fifteen year old who uses that library as her refuge, a mystery writing neighbor of Irwin’s, the teenager’s parents … one of whom has just been released from prison. Despite the odd assortment of characters, this is a book about second chances, hope, and healing. Well worth the read!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan! You would not regret reading “The Huntress.” Calling it a page-turner would be an understatement. 🙂

      And, from your description, “Unlikely Friends” does sound like a perfect example of odd/interesting groupings in books. Excellent summary of the book by you, and good luck with sales to your author friend!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi again, Dave 🙂

    If we’re talking triplet siblings, then I can’t go past the three sisters in Liane Moriarty’s compelling Three Wishes. It was the first Moriarty that I’d read after it being recommended by both you and Kat Lit and I greatly enjoyed it. Although the three sisters were very close (maybe too close?) they were all very different and it made for a fun read.

    I kind of want to mention the main trio in Harry Potter, but they’re not really odd, and I maybe mention the Potterverse too much anyway, so I’ll move on to something else…

    I’ve just finished reading Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and wow. Just wow. An incredibly powerful story of racism and bigotry in America. The story is told by Starr Carter who is a black girl dating a white boy. But it’s not just the couple who are ‘odd’. Starr lives in a black neighbourhood filled with drugs and violence and shootings. And she goes to a white school where she feels compelled to turn down the black part of her. A really beautifully told story about a young woman feeling like she’s living two different lives.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Susan! “Three Wishes” is a Liane Moriarty novel I haven’t gotten to yet. I’ve read four, and want to read them all. 🙂 Sister relationships in novels are often very interesting — “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Poisonwood Bible,” “Little Women,” and “In the Time of the Butterflies” being among many other well-worth-reading examples.

      Harry, Hermione, and Ron and their interactions are a very good example, too! I mention J.K. Rowling’s series a lot myself. 🙂

      “The Hate U Give” is now on my list. Sounds depressing but excellent. Glad you mentioned it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Susan! Of course, the first book that came to my mind was “Three Wishes,” and when I saw that you had commented, I felt sure you would have mentioned this fun novel. 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed reading it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I really did. I also really enjoyed Big Little Lies which I read not long after. I’m hoping to get to Nine Perfect Strangers in the near future.

        Dave – racism and bigotry are definitely depressing, but there’s a lot of fun to be had with Thomas’ novel. The characters leapt off the page at me, and had me laughing just as much as I cried. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Though I will give you give one word of advise. I never read blurbs of books until after I’ve finished, was amazed at what plot the back of the book gave away!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for mentioning more great books, Dave!

    A couple more notable trios who spring to mind are the Karamazov brothers from Dostoevsky’s novel and Black Beauty, Ginger, and Merrylegs from “Black Beauty.” When I was a kid we had a chestnut mare and a dappled gray pony, but alas, we never had a black horse to fill out the set.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re welcome, Elena, and thank YOU!

      I can’t believe I forgot to mention the Karamazov brothers! Three memorable, very different siblings in that Dostoevsky masterpiece.

      Even thought you didn’t have all three of the types of horses in “Black Beauty,” nice that you had two! What an experience it must have been to have had horses as a kid!

      Liked by 2 people

    • So glad you liked it – Kate Quinn’s grouping of characters is one of my favorite things about her as a writer. I always love the witty teaming up of the odd ball out types of people – giving it an “island of lost toys” kind of feel, yet each one is absolutely essential for the group to succeed, and I always love how they end up blending together in the end. So glad you have enjoyed Kate Quinn, Dave! I’ll keep you updated about anything I hear regarding her new one, which I believe is called “the Rose Code” but I’m not sure when it comes out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, M.B.! VERY well said. You just cited another reason why Kate Quinn’s novels are so good — not only does she assemble characters who are quite different from each other, but these people tend to be unconventional, eccentric, braver than the norm, more moral than the norm, etc. And, as you note, each is crucial. I look forward to reading more of Ms. Quinn’s books!

        Liked by 1 person

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