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 clichéd. (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.

61 thoughts on “When the Unexpected Is Author-Directed

  1. I recall finding out that Holly Golightly was actually Lulamae Barnes, a farm girl who ran away to NYC. I thought her secret life might have been far more mysterious, that she was actually wealthy and well-connected hence her charm and sophistication. But then Capote was pretty much an example re: how it’s possible to reinvent one’s self entirely. And now, alas and alack, ha! it’s rather common practice. Great post Dave. Susi

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susi! Well said! Reinvention can indeed be interesting even as the back story of the person’s pre-reinvented self might not be as scintillating as we expect. Shades of Jay Gatz/Jay Gatsby? 🙂

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  2. What’s really impressive is when the unexpected twist happens and you look back and think “of course… how did I not see that coming?” On the other hand it’s pretty painful when the unexpected thing doesn’t really make sense with the rest of the story and feels like a cheap attempt to inject some excitement or create an unearned cliffhanger (certainly the case with J.K. Rowling’s later work in the Harry Potter universe, and in particular the Fantastic Beasts movies).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave, one thing I’ve realized since reading your fiction blog is the amount of non-fiction I’ve read.

    Back to the topic at hand!
    “Ah Watson! The Needle!”
    I read Sherlock Holmes at a young age.
    I had no idea what that comment meant.
    Of course we all know now that he chose between heroine and cocaine.
    I find this a wild turn of direction.
    Knowing what I know now, I find it evermore fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa! I used to read more nonfiction than fiction myself before “unexpectedly” switching. 🙂

      Fascinating how we “understand” certain novels differently when we’re adults compared to when we were younger. And of course older works such as the Sherlock Holmes stories had to use somewhat coded language when describing drug use, sex, and so on.

      Liked by 1 person

      • 😵‍💫 Using coded language is oblique.
        It appears we have had 🤔 a lot more freedom of thought since my reading of those novels.
        When the unexpected is Author-Directed, how does that play out/may it play 100 years later?
        Love this blog!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Much appreciated, Resa. 🙂

          “Using coded language is oblique” — great line!

          While some things obviously haven’t changed for the better, more frankness and candidness and directness about things in books and elsewhere seems to me to be a good development.

          And, yes, the unexpected in a book might look/feel different when read a century later!

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  4. Well the ending of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin did my head in. After all that to end the way it did. And while i could see Anna Karenin was having probs but yeah that was a surprise. But hey having characters throw spanners in works is preferable to things jogging along

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Shehanne! The ending of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” was indeed unexpected — and emotionally gut-wrenching.

      And, yes, when beleaguered characters react in extreme ways, it can be a shock. Also the case in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” Jack London’s “Martin Eden,” etc.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Shehannemoore, Anna Karenina’s unfortunate end is well known even to many who have never read the novel, what surprised me about this work was how prominent Konstantine Levin was to the plot. He seemed to appear in more scenes than Anna did.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” had an unexpected ending that acted on me as a sort of short-fused time-bomb. After reading, I turned off my lamp and rolled over to sleep. About ten minutes in the dark, I sat bolt upright in delayed shock. If memory serves, that’s the only time a turn of plot had such an effect on me.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Hmmm, I have to think about this, Dave. I read a lot of historical novels so they always go, in terms of the greater picture, in accordance with what I know. However, the smaller details can be surprising. From the POV of an unexpected behaviour change, the disintegration of the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett in Gone with the Wind was unexpected and disappointing to me. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is different from a different perspective as it includes a lot of very humorous sections which contrast with the horrific scenes and make them that much more compelling. I never read about survivors of a war being in such an appalling state before. It’s quite shocking and dreadful. Worse that the condition of the WW1 soldiers.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you, Robbie!

        Great point that historical novels (if done well and carefully researched) will not contain a lot of major surprises for readers who know history. But, as you note, smaller surprises can abound. And of course historical novels that take significant liberties with what is known about history can contain surprises in that respect.

        I LOVED Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe,” and that excellent novel did indeed have various unexpected moments.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, vanaltman! I haven’t read or seen “The Power of the Dog,” but I totally agree that the very compelling “Ethan Frome” takes all kinds of twists and turns readers would not necessarily expect. Plus it’s very different from the Edith Wharton novels — such as “The Age of Innocence” and “The House of Mirth” — set in New York City society.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Anthony Doerr’s new one, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” certainly took me in a direction I wasn’t expecting! Especially at the very end. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. A book I also just finished, “These Silent Woods,” had a twist ending with a character that I never would have seen coming. Gotta love those unexpected surprises! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  8. You are a fast reader, Dave! Well, I think that unexpected changes happen continuously, in our lives, or maybe above all when we think everything is going to happen as planned!
    In Miss Garnet’s Angel I, however, think that the lady’s new acquaintences, friendships or loves and other discoveries she made in Venice led her to being transformed and helped her to reassess her past. It was for me great to see what changing and unexpected effects a trip to another place and other experiences can have on us! Thank you very much for your thoughts:)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Endless Weekend! “Jane Eyre” absolutely qualifies — it has various unexpected moments — but I try not to mention the same novel in two consecutive posts. (Well, I usually try to avoid that… 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a tough theme. But I did think of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. The setting (Gormenghast castle and environs) is such an important part of the first two books that it was a shock that the main character (Titus Groan) departs from it in the third book. That was a disappointment I never got over and I’ve never like that third book.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Audrey. That IS a surprise, and not welcome.

      Reminds me a bit of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy (“All the Pretty Horses,” etc.), in which the main character in the first book isn’t the main character in the second and third.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. This one may not count since it’s a suspense / thriller, but “Derailed” by James Siegel came to mind for me immediately. I read it about 16 years ago but just couldn’t believe how it unfolded! They made a movie of it with Clive Owen and Jennifer Anniston but it didn’t come close to capturing the surprises for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Oh, another great post that has brought me back to the time I read “Three Daughter of Madam Laing.” By Pearl S Buck. I think I was about 15 at the time and didn’t have a clue about China’s Cultural Revolution. I was confused through the entire book because it simply wasn’t what I expected. I was propelled into a complex, strange world that didn’t make any sense to me. And yet, that experience stayed with me, and still does to this day because I realized, at that pivotal moment, that unexpected paths will grace our lives and ignite our desire to know more, to see more, to experience more.

    “And as for equality, are the fingers on one hand equal in length? Each has its place.”
    Pearl S. Buck, Three Daughters of Madame Liang

    Liked by 4 people

  12. “Elinor Olyphant Is Perfectly Fine” by Gail Honeyman has a surprise twist at the ending that took me off guard,well worth the read,one of the favorite books I read during the health crisis.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. ( Spoiler) Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady” ended very abruptly and the reader is not informed whether or not the protagonist Isabel Archer returned to her deceitful husband.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. (Spoiler alert) Many short stories have surprise endings but the novel whose ending shocked me was Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” when the narrator/protagonist Paul Baumer was reported as killed towards the end of the First World War. This must be one of the very few novels that the first person narrator dies. I read this in high school and I have forgotten much of the plot and the characters but I still remember the ending.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. Hmm, speaking of John Irving, The World According to Garp had two elements that I did not expect. The first was the constant blathering about bears (where was his editor?). The second was a scene in a car that was absolutely horrific (where was his editor?).

    Liked by 7 people

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