Multigenerational Novels Contain Multitudes

Rachel Ward as Meggie and Richard Chamberlain as Ralph in “The Thorn Birds” miniseries.

When I think of sweeping, two things come to mind: brooms, and multigenerational novels in which a number of decades pass.

Many of those literary works are ambitious, impressive, and poignant. Characters grow older, many good and bad things happen, we see how similar or different their children and grandchildren turn out to be, we see those family members interact, we see settings change as characters relocate, we see societal and cultural norms shift, etc.

All of which can be challenging for authors — who obviously have to do lots of research, thread real-life events into story lines, juggle many characters, make those characters speak differently at different ages and during different eras, and so on. When novelists pull all that off, it’s a thing to behold.

I beheld The Thorn Birds last week, and found that novel riveting and often heartbreaking. Among the most memorable things about Colleen McCullough’s book was the way she took her characters from 1915 to 1969 and from New Zealand to Australia to Europe — mixing in then-current events along the way. But the most fascinating element was seeing Meggie Cleary depicted as a kid, then as a teen, then as a young adult, and then as a middle-aged woman — including her interactions with her parents, her many brothers, her two out-of-the-ordinary children, and her nasty, conniving, ultra-rich aunt. Plus Meggie’s compelling, complicated relationship with charismatic priest Ralph de Bricassart. 

Other multigenerational novels of note?

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden covers a time span from roughly America’s Civil War to the end of World War I. Parts of the book are semi-autobiographical, with a young Steinbeck himself even making a cameo. The novel might not be quite as famous as The Grapes of Wrath, but in some ways is even more ambitious — certainly occupying a much longer stretch of years than Steinbeck’s 1930s-set tale of the Joad family.

Even more ambitious is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which chronicles SEVEN generations of the Buendia family amid much magical realism. Here, the book’s title obviously provides a sense of the story’s decades-long scope.

While One Hundred Years of Solitude is mostly set in one place, many other multigenerational novels take readers to far-flung locales — with immigration often an element. For instance, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex starts in 1922 near the border of Greece and Turkey with the grandparents of protagonist Cal/Calliope before things eventually move to the U.S. and Michigan. There, the novel’s story of complex gender identity unfolds.

In many cases, it requires a series of novels for a multigenerational saga to be chronicled. One example is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, the first of which begins the time-travel love story of 20th-century nurse (later doctor) Claire and 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie. Eventually, their daughter and grandchildren are among those added to the family/extended-family mix. 

Your favorite multigenerational novels and series that take place over a number of decades?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town being a welcoming place for LGBTQ people — is here.

Puzzling Star Billing in Some Fiction Titles

The Three…um…Four Musketeers.

When a novel’s title features names of people, they’re sure to be the stars of the book, right? Think Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, David Copperfield, Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Ethan Frome, Eugenie Grandet, Evelina, Lelia, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Bridge, Agnes Grey, Life of Pi, Emma, Heidi, Carrie, Camille, Suttree, Pierre, Lord Jim, Sister Carrie, Hadji Murat, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, etc.

But this is not always the case. Occasionally, the people in a title are secondary (albeit significant) characters, or they share top billing. Why? Maybe the titular secondary character is particular charismatic or mysterious. Maybe the chosen title just has a nicer ring to it. Maybe the author intends a bit of misdirection or surprise.

One example is Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Rob Roy. While the Scottish outlaw has a major role in the 1817 book, the most prominent character is narrator Frank Osbaldistone. Rob Roy is of course a more interesting fella, and who would want to read a novel called Frank Osbaldistone? 🙂 Anyway, it’s logical that those behind the 1995 film version of Scott’s novel made Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) the main guy.

Four years after Scott’s novel was published, James Fenimore Cooper came out with The Spy. But Revolutionary War agent Harvey Birch is not the main player in the book; he’s part of an ensemble of about a half-dozen characters who get roughly equal time. Still, Birch is the novel’s most intriguing creation, and faces some memorably dangerous situations.

Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers? Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are of course a big part of that swashbuckling 1844 novel, but the younger D’Artagnan — who becomes essentially the fourth musketeer — is really the star of the show.

The true star of R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 novel Lorna Doone is John Ridd. But John falls in love with Lorna, much of the story stems from that romance, and Lorna IS a major player in the book, so the title is understandable. Plus who would want to eat a cookie called “John Ridd”? 🙂

Daniel Deronda is the linchpin of George Eliot’s 1876 novel of that name, but a case can be made that the fascinating arc of Gwendolen Harleth’s life makes her at least equal as a character in that book.

Jumping nearly a century, we have Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula, whose protagonist is actually Sula’s best friend Nel. But Sula — while occupying less of the book than Nel — drives the plot with her charisma, her unconventionality, and (at times) her selfishness and not-niceness.

Any other novel titles that might fit this theme?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town belatedly becoming eligible for federal disaster relief after Hurricane Ida — is here.

Educators Give Fiction Lots of Class

Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus

My wife’s latest semester as a French professor has begun, and my younger daughter started high school this past Thursday — meaning I have education on my mind. So I thought I’d offer an updated, edited amalgam of my 2015 post about teachers in literature and my 2012 post about professors in literature.

Many educators in fiction are smart, hardworking, and compassionate — like most real-life educators we and our children have had.

One of my favorite classroom characters is Anne Shirley in Anne of Avonlea, the first sequel to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Anne becomes a teacher while still a pre-college teen — and predictably things don’t always go smoothly. But she is kind and imaginative, and earns the love and respect of her Canadian students.

Another beloved teacher is Charles Chipping — of James Hilton’s novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips — who’s a rather rigid, conventional educator until he warms up over the course of a many-decade career at an English public boarding school.

Also in England, innovative teacher Ricky Braithwaite wins over his at-first-unmotivated students in E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love — later made into the famous movie starring Sidney Poitier.

Jane Eyre was briefly a teacher, and a good one, after fleeing Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. (Previously, she instructed one kid — Edward Rochester’s ward Adele — while governess at Thornfield.) Jane’s teaching approach was undoubtedly inspired by the wonderful Maria Temple at the initially miserable Lowood institution Jane was forced to attend as a girl.

In American fiction, among the many excellent educators is drama teacher Dan Needham of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Great teachers abound in children’s books, too, with one of the most memorable the ingenious, enthusiastic Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus series written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen. Also a popular animated TV series.

Of course, not all teachers are terrific. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, for instance, educators range from admirable (think Minerva McGonagall) to incompetent (think Gilderoy Lockhart).

Then there are teachers somewhere in the middle of the competence spectrum. Ida Ramundo means well in Elsa Morante’s novel History, but her classroom performance deteriorates as she becomes overwhelmed by various disasters while trying to survive in Nazi-occupied Rome.

The teacher title character in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is charismatic but unfortunately has fascist sympathies.

On the irresponsible side is young teacher Aimee Lanthenay, who has an affair with the student star of Claudine at School. But almost everything is played for laughs in Colette’s first novel, so the major ethical breach seems somewhat muted.

Moving to higher education, we have professor protagonists — a number of them quirky. There can be drama in their interactions with students, in their competitive relationships with fellow profs, in their sometimes-fraught encounters with university administrators, in their quests for tenure, and in the whole publish-or-perish thing. All that makes up for the fact they are (usually) not the heroic, adventurous sorts who make readers turn pages faster than tuition payments drain a bank account.

Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs tells the alternating stories of a professor (Virginia Miner) and junior faculty member (Fred Turner) from the same Ivy League university. Both Americans are (separately) in London, where they do research and soon find themselves in opposites-attract liaisons — i.e., “foreign affairs.” But the highlight of this Pulitzer-winning novel is “Vinnie” Miner herself — a 54-year-old specialist in children’s lit who Lurie describes as “small, plain, and unmarried.” She’s polite, reserved, resentful, self-deprecating, and REALLY smart.

There’s also Tony Fremont in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride, which focuses on three middle-aged friends dealing with the reappearance of a scheming, supposedly dead woman who had wreaked havoc on their lives. One thing that makes Tony such an original character is that she’s a somewhat timid woman whose academic specialty is…the macho history of warfare!

Marine biology is Professor Humphrey Clark’s specialty in Margaret Drabble’s novel The Sea Lady, which co-stars Clark’s ex-wife Ailsa Kelman. One interesting thing about this novel is the contrast between the low-key, scholarly Humphrey and the flamboyant Ailsa, who’s a TV personality (among other things).

Then there’s Michael Chabon’s seriocomic Wonder Boys, about a Pittsburgh prof with a rather chaotic life. Grady Tripp’s wife walks out on him, his lover (the college chancellor!) is pregnant, one of his students commits a weird crime, and he’s writing a way-too-long mess of a book after enjoying success with a novel. That last situation is sort of a goof on how some academics don’t write with the average reader in mind.

Seventy years earlier, Willa Cather penned one of her lesser-known novels, The Professor’s House — which focuses on history prof Godfrey St. Peter’s midlife crisis as he moves into a new home, becomes an empty-nester, and worries about where society is heading.

Also, there are the unlikable academic rivals Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and the unsympathetic prof Gauri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.

In May of this year, you might remember me raving about John Williams’ bleak novel Stoner starring a Missouri farm boy-turned-professor who endures a mostly heartbreaking life but finds some solace in a love of learning and literature.

Who are the fictional educators you remember most?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about Hurricane Ida’s remnants slamming my town — is here.

Less-Famous Works By Famous Writers

Top-tier authors are often known mostly for certain novels, and some people read only those books without delving into the writers’ lesser-known work…unless they do.

If they do, they might find gems or disappointment or a combination thereof. But, not surprisingly, it’s frequently worth the effort.

My latest foray into this realm was with James Fenimore Cooper. Before last week, I had only read the novels with which he is most associated — the five “Leatherstocking” books featuring Natty Bumppo’s wilderness and frontier life, and his memorable interactions with Native Americans (most notably Chingachgook) and other characters. All five novels are excellent, with The Last of the Mohicans the most known and The Deerslayer my favorite.

But Cooper penned about 25 other novels, so I decided to try one of them: The Spy, set during the Revolutionary War. It’s…okay, not much more. Perhaps partly because it’s James F.’s second novel, and not all fiction writers find their footing that early in their careers. Still, The Spy has some anniversary cred — it was published in 1821, exactly 200 years ago.

I’ve usually had more positive experiences trying the lesser-known novels of notable authors. One example is L.M. Montgomery, who’s of course most remembered for Anne of Green Gables. But some of the Anne sequels are also quite good (especially Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside), Montgomery’s semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy is excellent, and her standalone novel The Blue Castle is fabulous. All set in Canada, of course.

Speaking of that country, Willa Cather’s Quebec City-set Shadows on the Rock is an under-appreciated gem by an author who’s remembered primarily for Death Comes for the Archbishop and secondarily for My Antonia. Her The Song of the Lark is pretty compelling, too.

The six words most associated with Erich Maria Remarque are those in the title of All Quiet on the Western Front — his antiwar masterpiece. The riveting Arch of Triumph is probably his second-highest-profile novel. (As with All Quiet, it didn’t hurt that the book inspired a major movie.) But equally good or perhaps even better books in Remarque’s canon are his less-famous The Night in Lisbon and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

Indeed, an author’s best-known novel is not always his or her best novel. Consider Colette, whose supposedly signature work is her late-career Gigi even as quite a few of her earlier books are better than that rather slight concoction. The Vagabond, for example, and even her debut novel Claudine at School — one a semi-autobiographical look at a music-hall performer who values her independence and the second…well…just plain hilarious.

Edith Wharton is most remembered for her novels The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome — all stellar — but her ghost stories are also as good as that genre gets.

I’ve obviously only scratched the surface here. What are some of your favorite novels that are not as known as other novels in the canons of famous authors?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a leaf-blower ruling and some COVID-related matters — is here.