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.