Have you ever read a novel that’s mostly low-key, subtle, understated, and even seemingly simple yet is compelling or charming or funny or emotionally wrenching or all of the above? Sure you have, and I have, too.
The latest for me was A Man Called Ove, which I finished a few days ago. That 2012 novel by Swedish author Fredrik Backman initially appears to be a few-frills tale of a very grumpy 59-year-old loner until it sneaks up on the reader — with help from a gradually unfolding back story — to become a wonderfully quirky, romantic, inspiring, humanistic, multicultural, heartbreaking, better-have-tissues-handy book. A novel so good that it powerfully reinforces one of the reasons we read fiction: hoping for that occasional can’t-put-down work. (The above photo, from the movie, shows a young Ove at the time he meets his future wife Sonja.)
Another understated novel is Mrs. Bridge, which is more downbeat overall than A Man Called Ove but shares a certain outward plainness that masks many beneath-the-surface themes: in this case, Evan Connell’s tale of a well-to-do family says a lot about class, conformity, unhappiness, the emptiness of too much materialism, and more.
There’s also Being There, the satirical Jerzy Kosinski novel with a flatness literally embodied in its flat protagonist: the simple-minded gardener Chance who somehow becomes considered an oracle of sorts. The book is far from flat; that’s just its veneer.
Gigi is nowhere near my favorite Colette work — the novel is sort of frivolous and its central relationship doesn’t grab me. But it’s beautifully written in its low-key way, and is more complex than it seems.
How about A Christmas Carol? A short, fairly straightforward morality tale from the usually more intricate Charles Dickens, but there’s a reason why it has endured for more than 175 years: It skillfully depicts many recognizable human (and ghostly 🙂 ) traits.
And The Remains of the Day. Kazuo Ishiguro’s story of a butler is extremely understated, but strong emotions and secrets boil under the surface.
Then there’s James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips — about a gentle, long-tenured boarding school teacher who’s at first conventional and kind of stiff before his brief marriage makes him a looser, more tolerant person and educator.
Many of Fannie Flagg’s novels — including her most recent, The Whole Town’s Talking (2016) — also sort of fit this category. Those books are folksy and sentimental, yet quietly take on issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia.
And Henry James’ writing (especially in mid- and late-career) is FAR from simple but almost always understated — as in The Ambassadors. Strong passions are repressed, but never totally repressed.
Even in low-key novels, beleaguered protagonists might eventually erupt in some way. That’s the case in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls — and in A Man Called Ove, too.
Your favorite works that 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 piece — which includes humorous fake answers to a superintendent-search survey — is here.