When the Unexpected Is Author-Directed

A photo I took in Venice many years ago.

Among the novels I like are ones that go in unexpected directions. Readers think they have an approximate idea of what will happen, but the authors have other ideas. 🙂

That was certainly the case with Miss Garnet’s Angel, the Salley Vickers novel I just read. It stars a lonely, reserved, socially awkward, middle-aged Englishwoman who, after the death of her housing mate, decides to throw caution to the wind for once in her life and spend six months in beautiful Venice.

With a scenario like that, one expects the protagonist to be quite likable. But Julia Garnet is not particularly likable.

We also expect Julia to find romance in romantic Venice. She sort of does, for a while, but things go sour in a highly unpredictable way.

Add a weird, ancient, quasi-religious parallel story, and Miss Garnet’s Angel turns out to be far from clichĂ©d. (Though I guess the “Angel” in the title offered a clue to the quasi-religious content.)

Other novels with different content than one might expect? Of course, authors of mysteries and detective stories can be masters of misdirection — throwing out red herrings and such. But more general literature might surprise us as well. Here are some examples:

When one prepares to read Herman Melville’s epic Moby-Dick, total seriousness and gravitas would appear to be on the menu. Then, before the Captain Ahab-helmed Pequod sets sail on its fateful voyage, we’re treated to a hilarious room-in-an-inn scene involving Ishmael and Queequeg.

If you were told before starting George Eliot’s 1799-set Adam Bede that a major character would be a preacher, you wouldn’t bat an eyelash. But the preacher turns out to be a woman (Dinah Morris) — hardly typical for the patriarchal 18th century. 

Two characters are attracted to each other in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Life and their marriages to other people get in the way. Years later, they have the opportunity to meet again in more favorable circumstances. The decision one of them makes kind of floored me.

We expect the unexpected in John Irving’s quirky novels. Still, the scene involving a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany? Didn’t expect THAT.

Early in Robertson Davies’ Murther & Walking Spirits, the protagonist is killed by his wife’s lover. It would be an understatement to say I didn’t anticipate the victim spending his afterlife as a ghost at a very personal film festival.

A Jewish Eskimo is among the cast in another novel by a Canadian author, Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here. Not the most probable secondary character.

In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, we are led to believe that one particular protagonist will die and another will survive. But….

Some novels you’ve read that contained unexpected elements?

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” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — which has a local high-school softball theme — is here.

In Novels, Emotional Variety Includes Joy and Anxiety

My daughter Maria pitching a no-hitter on April 11. (Photo by my wife, Laurel Cummins.) 

As is the case with people in real life, a fictional character often experiences intense happiness and deep sadness in one novel — or even in just a few pages of one novel. Certainly no surprise there — life always has its peaks and valleys — but the roller-coaster ride can make for interesting reading as the character’s emotions, and readers’ emotions, get whipsawed.

An admittedly rather trivial real-life example of the above is my teen daughter Maria’s recent softball experience, which went from a losing-filled Spring 2021 travel season to a so-far-undefeated Spring 2022 high school season that included her pitching a no-hitter last week.

Examples in fiction? A countless number; I’ll discuss a few that came to mind.

One is the Joad family’s experiences in California after having to leave their Oklahoma farm in The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck’s characters mostly fared miserably on the West Coast, but there was that brief positive interlude of them making some decent money and living in a humane government camp.

Also in California, the title character in Jack London’s Martin Eden goes through lengthy lows as a struggling writer, followed by the brief highs of publishing success, and then…

Love affairs — whether in or out of marriage — can be euphoric, yet the joy might not last as things gradually or quickly go south. The title of Erich Maria Remarque’s wartime romance A Time to Love and a Time to Die telegraphs that, and there are also various ups and downs for the relationships in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Emile Zola’s The Beast in Man, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and numerous other novels.

Silas Marner? Life is mostly good for George Eliot’s protagonist before a grave betrayal sends him into solitude and depression. After which… 

In Morgan’s Run by Colleen McCullough, things are also going well for 18th-century Englishman Richard Morgan before he’s unjustly imprisoned and shipped to a penal colony to Australia, where he faces daunting hardships while managing to carve out some contentment. 

Preteens and teens can certainly have major swings of happiness and sadness. Think orphan Anne Shirley in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables — who, in addition to experiencing major life events such as finding a home — navigates the tricky situations of friendship, school, and more faced by most young people. Or the title character in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, who engages in some enjoyable kid hi-jinks while also facing a scary situation later in Mark Twain’s novel.

Any examples you’d like to offer that 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” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a problematic approach to potential overdevelopment near one of my town’s six train stations — is here.

Clothing in Literature

This post includes edited content from a 2013 piece along with new material.

(Almost) every fictional character wears something, so clothing is a big part of literature, right? Actually, often not. But apparel can be unusually prominent in certain novels — and can say a lot about protagonists and how they’re viewed by others.

After all, a character’s garb might signify wealth or poverty, good taste or bad taste, a certain ethnicity, major life changes, flirtatiousness, machismo,and much more. So, let’s get in “gear” and cite some examples…

I’m still reading Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, and one memorable part of that biographical novel about Michelangelo is the contrast between him and another legendary artist — Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo (1475-1564) is the scrappy younger upstart who’s often too poor and always too obsessed with work to pay much attention to what he wears, while the more patrician da Vinci (1452-1519) dresses quite well.

Then there’s the scene in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind in which Scarlett O’Hara wears a dress made from a green curtain. That illustrates her determined attempt to persevere during bad times, though it doesn’t help her get a much-needed $300 from Rhett Butler to pay the taxes on Tara.

Take away a “t” from the name Scarlett, and you have part of The Scarlet Letter title. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, Hester Prynne is required to wear an outfit with a sewed-on “A” for adultery that obviously spotlights her outcast status, though Hester’s likable stoicism is such that we feel the “A” stands for “admirable.”

Also admirable is the down-to-earth title character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre who refuses to dress like a wealthy woman after getting engaged to the rich Rochester — a big contrast to the finery worn by Blanche Ingram, the shallow snob Rochester was supposedly interested in. Jane even wears modest attire to her fateful wedding ceremony.

And the Jane Eyre scene featuring a certain major character dressed as a fortune-teller exemplifies how clothing can be used as a disguise in literature. Quite the case as well in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, in which protagonist Eliza Summers disguises herself as a man to help get by in the male-dominated milieu of California’s 1849 Gold Rush.

It wasn’t the case with Jane, but one’s income usually affects the way a character dresses. There are few better examples of that than in the Mark Twain role-reversal novels The Prince and the Pauper and Pudd’nhead Wilson. If a rich person looks poor and a poor person looks rich, clothes are a big cue for buying into that mistaken identity.

When Delia Grinstead suddenly leaves her husband and almost-grown children in Baltimore to live in a small Maryland town, she buys a distinguished-looking gray dress that helps change her psychological identity from unappreciated homemaker to assured professional. That’s in Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years.

Former Irani military man Massoud Behrani leaves his American abode each day wearing an immaculate suit before changing into a work outfit for his menial job picking up litter in Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. Obviously, clothing can say a lot about ego, pride, and keeping up appearances.

In sports novels, the way characters look in uniform vs. everyday togs can be telling. Baseball phenom Joe Castle is the picture of youth and success in his Chicago Cubs uniform, but becomes a poignant figure in small-town groundskeeper garb after tragedy strikes in John Grisham’s Calico Joe.

Speaking of genre novels, it would take a whole other post to describe how important a person’s and a society’s wardrobe is in many time-travel, science-fiction, and fantasy books.

Novels can even have clothing references in their titles, which certainly give garments a prominent place in such books. One example is Herman Melville’s White-Jacket, named after a 19th-century naval uniform (military attire is often found in fictional works). There’s also Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, about matters such as conformity and materialism; and Ann Brashares’ The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

And clothing can be a major book theme in addition to something characters wear. For instance, Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight is set in a 19th-century department store that sells all kinds of women’s apparel, even as that big-box behemoth devastates small shops and the surrounding Parisian neighborhood. Not a result that leaves readers in “stitches,” though the novel also has a romantic aspect.

What are you favorite fictional works in which clothing plays an important part? The comments area will include conversation “threads.” 🙂

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” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a big school-bonding ask and more — is here.

Italian Authors and Italian Themes

A photo I took in Florence many years ago.

Those of us who’ve visited Italy have very fond memories of our sojourns there. We also have fond memories of various novels by Italian authors, and by non-Italian authors who set some of their books in Italy.

I’m currently reading Irving Stone’s terrific biographical novel The Agony and the Ecstasy, which stars not only the brilliant sculptor/artist Michelangelo but also the vividly depicted city of Florence. While readers know from the start that Michelangelo is destined for greatness, the 1961 novel is still fascinating and suspenseful as we see his path to creative mastery, learn about his personality, sympathize with his setbacks, etc. One can tell that the American author spent a lot of time in Italy researching the book before writing it.

Now let’s turn to some excellent Italian writers. Among those I’ve read are Elsa Morante, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, and Elena Ferrante.

Morante’s History is a gripping tale of a mostly ill-fated family — living in Rome during World War II — that includes the beleaguered Ida and her very charismatic young son Useppe.

Lampedusa’s posthumously published novel The Leopard — about the aristocracy’s decline in 19th-century Italy and more — is a book with prose worthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a mesmerizing murder mystery set in a 14th-century monastery. But another Eco novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, is a hard-to-read book that gave me a headache. 

Calvino? I’ve read his quirky Marcovaldo, starring an at-times bumbling dreamer. It’s one of those novels-comprised-of-interconnected-short-stories a la Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

I’ve also tried one Elena Ferrante novel — her interesting The Lost Daughter, made into a 2021 film.

Then there’s of course Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century Divine Comedy. I hope to read that epic poem one of these days.

Back to non-Italian writers…

American/British novelist Henry James placed some of his work in Italy — including the intriguing The Aspern Papers (Venice) and the so-so Daisy Miller (Rome).

French author Stendhal featured an Italian nobleman in The Charterhouse of Parma

English writer Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked includes the volcanic disaster that befell Pompeii.

American author Martin Cruz Smith, known for Gorky Park and its sequels, left his Russian milieu at times to write stand-alone novels such as The Girl from Venice.

Speaking of Italy’s beautiful city of canals — a place I’ve been fortunate to visit twice — there’s also Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the only other work named in this post I haven’t read yet.

Any authors and literary works you’d like to mention that 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” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a rent control agreement, a major redevelopment project, and the possible reopening of a century-old movie theater — is here.