More Than a Slice of Life 

It’s not a genre per se, but a type of novel I find interesting is “The Whole Life in One Book” book. Yes, while many novels span a few years or less, some span the main character’s entire existence — whether she or he dies relatively young or in old age.

Of course a multigenerational saga can do that for a number of lives, but for this post I’m focusing on novels that concentrate the majority of their contents on one person — showing a complete life in a sometimes surprisingly small number of pages. It can be fascinating and poignant to see decades of a character’s family relationships, romantic relationships, jobs, right decisions or wrong decisions, good luck or bad luck, etc. — as well as the real-world news events that swirled around her or him. All while we’re reminded of our own mortality and that life — even if lengthy — is quite short in the great scheme of things.

A whole-life novel I just read is The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (pictured above) — who depicts her protagonist, Daisy Goodwill Flett, from birth in 1905 to death in the early 1990s. Daisy is often rather passive (partly explained by being young and then middle-aged before the modern feminist era) and experiences more disappointments than good times. Yet she actually has a pretty interesting life.

Shields’ melancholy, beautifully written 1993 novel is medium-length, so, like most books that span a protagonist’s entire life, some literary shorthand has to be used. After all, if we had a comprehensive chronicle of a character’s existence, it could run thousands of pages. In the case of The Stone Diaries, each chapter of the  Pulitzer Prize-winning book jumps roughly a decade forward in time, though there’s some back story describing the intervening years. This approach works quite well. 

Among the other excellent “Whole Life in One Book” novels (or “Most or Much of a Life in One Book” novels) are John Williams’ Stoner, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Jack London’s Martin Eden, John Irving’s The World According to Garp, and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (the title is a bit of a giveaway there 🙂 ). All feature their protagonist’s name in the title other than The Mill on the Floss, which stars the memorable Maggie Tulliver.

Any thoughts on 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a local anti-gun-violence gathering and more — is here.

99 thoughts on “More Than a Slice of Life 

  1. Dave , how about ” A Suitable Boy “, by Vikram Seth, we discussed the book somewhere years ago, it is the longest book I have ever read
    A Suitable Boy is a novel published in 1993. With 1,349 pages

    ” This is an epic family saga set in post-partition India. It is at once an intimate family drama about Lata, and her family’s search for ‘a suitable boy’ for her to marry; it is also a historical snapshot of a nation in the process of redefining itself, and an insightful glimpse into a world where religion is deeply interwoven in daily life.”

    Later I donated the book to the Library, I forgot the details but there was a series somewhere of the long book.

    Might not be multigeraration book but beats any other book by it`s pages, I enjoyed the book thnb but not going to re-read the book again.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I borrowed that one from the library, at the time I lived in LA, and a library branch was half a block from my house, on the early nineties, used to have a good relationship with the main librarian of that branch, and he extended to me some extra privileges like extra days to return the book, but a Suitable Boy, I did not finish it, I found it too long, and going all over the place, before returning to the main story. Besides the Hindu mores, if I understand them, but are foreign to our Western thinking, and attitudes, I run out of patience with the book. Maybe not my cup of tea, others may like it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, theburningheart! Sorry you didn’t have a better experience with “A Suitable Boy.” You certainly gave it a good try. I’ve also had mixed feelings about some 1,000-plus-page novels, while finding others — including “The Count of Monte Cristo” — too short. 🙂

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  2. I love the Stone Diaries. I agree, she handles the passing of time very well. Carol Sheilds was an amazing author and I’ve read just about everything she has written until her untimely death. One of Canada’s finest.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I immediately thought of “Moulin Rouge” by Pierre la Mure
    From birth to death, the life of Toulouse Lautrec.

    I actually saw a sketch of his in a private home. I was mesmerized.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa! Great point that a biographical novel, such as “Moulin Rouge,” often takes its subject from birth to death. You reminded me of an excellent one I recently read — Irving Stone’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” about Michelangelo.

      So nice that you saw a sketch by Toulouse Lautrec!

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  4. Margaret Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye” is one I like. The narrator jumps between flashbacks and the present. For readers who don’t know it – the protagonist is a successful yet jaded artist in her golden years, remembering a complex, close “friendship” with a childhood bully/tormentor.

    I enjoyed South of the Border, West of the Sun by Murakami about love lost; and Atonement by Ian McEwan – also about love lost. And there is Lolita for its beautiful language (shame it’s so disturbing).

    Books of this genre feel like they have a certain depth because you get to know the main character so intimately. It feels like you are reading a real person…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, talus more! “Cat’s Eye” — a novel I like a lot — does indeed cover a lot of the protagonist’s life, including in flashbacks. It’s interesting how some “whole life” or “near whole life” novels are chronological and others have their timelines more scrambled.

      Margaret Atwood is of course very well known for her speculative fiction, but her contemporary fiction such as “Cat’s Eye” is excellent, too.

      I appreciate you also mentioning several other novels, and totally agree with your eloquent last paragraph!

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  5. Hi Dave, another interesting topic and one that I am grappling with as a writer. My WIP needs to made a jump forward of a decade and I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. I am going to get this book and see how this author handled it so thanks very much. The only books I can think of that fit into this theme are the long family type sagas. The Thorn Birds covers Maggie’s entire life from young girlhood to an elderly lady. Taipan by James Clavell is also covers decades as does War and Peace. I shall reflect on this further during the course of today. Thanks, Dave, for a thought provoking post.

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  6. Memoirs of a Geisha by Golden and Steinbeck’s East of Eden are the only ones that come to mind. I’m also thinking of Prince of Tides by Conroy, though I’m not sure it fits the theme. I’m hoping we get a book or two re: the Jan 6th commission’s revelation. I’m certain we will. So I’m anticipating a great read there. Susi

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susi, for those three book mentions! I’ve read the excellent “East of Eden,” and it definitely spans a good number of decades.

      Those possible January 6 books will be interesting but depressing reads. Far-right insurrection, with the instigator (Trump) unpunished, will do that. 😦

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  7. In what might merely be the effect of autobiography on fiction, the linear timeline of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” starts at the protagonist’s infancy and proceeds to nominal present by novel’s end. I think Frank Conroy’s “Stoptime” works similarly. In each book, we leave our hero, to employ Dante’s phrase, ‘in the midst of life’, though neither fell into a dark wood. In their way, these works mimic the autobigraphy, in that the author, like the autobiographer, stops before death, as he must, since there is no life for which to account after, and no way to write the end before one comes to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY!

      Interesting, excellent point about how autobiography can affect novels and the life spans of their main characters — with some novels of course very autobiographical or semi-autobiographical.

      One of the novels I mentioned near the end of my post is semi-autobiographical yet the protagonist — unlike the author, obviously — dies. (I won’t say which book to avoid a spoiler.) I’ve read that the author, not surprisingly, was feeling depressed at the time the novel was being written.

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      • Yes– each of the novels I mentioned above are noted for their heavy use of autobiographical material…

        Here’s another example of something on topic, but one I haven’t read, having also to date, ignored the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”– but in that one, as I understand it, the hero grows younger with they years, dying at last of old infancy. The movie was made out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of that name, and I’m surprised not to have read it, given how many I have read. No idea how faithfully,or otherwise, the movie follows the short story.

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        • The plot of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is as you described, and it’s a GREAT short story. (I think in some ways Fitzgerald was as good or better a short-story writer than a novelist.) Never saw the movie.

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          • I agree with you re Fitzgerald’s short story prowess. The perfect pace of pieces in “Babylon Revisited” was a revelation, though by now, long ago, maybe 40 years… you could almost tap your foot to the prose.

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            • Great description! I finally read a collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories two or three years ago (after having read several of his novels) and was pretty much bowled over. Very impressive.

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    • Upon earnest reflection, I would like to amend my last statement, or at least to add, that there is at least one notable exception to my general rule governing autobiographers: Jonathan Swift wrote “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” in 1731, yet lived till 1745.

      I have lately been reading the man, out of a collection of his works put out by the Modern Library in 1958. I am now a happy veteran of “A Tale of A Tub” and several smaller efforts– letters, prayers, essays, poems. (My mother read us “Gulliver’s Travels” when I was small[!])

      What seems like one of the most ancient attributes of the collection is a blurb on the back, crowing about praise the Modern Library editions had received from “the conservative New York Times”. Sigh.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. It sounds like I’ve missed out in not having read The Stone Diaries. As I discovered when writing the story of my protagonist over a 20-year-period, it is very difficult to cover a long period of time in one small-sized book. I recall being hooked as a young adult reader on reading the novel, The Thorn Birds by Australian author Colleen McCullough (1977), in which she covers 54 years of a family across different generations.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Rosaliene! You’re right that it’s not easy to cover a whole life in a novel that’s not super-long, as you know firsthand. And you’re also right that the great “The Thorn Birds” covers a very long span of several characters’ lives — including Meggie Cleary and Father Ralph.

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  9. I must admit, Dave, that I never heard of “The Stone Diaries”, which sounds pretty interesting, or its writer Carol Shields! Thank you for your suggestion:) From a cradle to grave story, I could maybe add Lélia ou la vie de George Sand by Andrea Maurois. This biography of the famous French writer, who had a very active sexual life in her youth with very known artists and who was also very much involved with women’s rights and also fought for poor people is written more like a novel, but the language is quite difficult.

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    • Thank you, lulabelle! Great example of a near-whole life in a novel! Rosamunde Pilcher’s “The Shell Seekers” is a fantastic book, and, while Penelope Keeling is mostly in her 60s in it, there’s plenty of backstory covering much of her life.

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  10. Another thought-provoking post, Dave. If I go back into my non-fiction, I have many autobiograpical/biographical suggestions I could make such as Christopher Hitchens’ “Hitch-22.”

    However I do want to mention “The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish, which covers the lives of two remarkable/brilliant women separated by centuries. I think it covers more than a slice of life (love that title) Set in London of the 1660’s and the early 21st century, Rachel Kadish skillfully intertwines the lives of Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city, and Helen Watt, an academic who is an expert in Jewish history. Helen Watt follows the clues to unravel the mystery surrounding Ester Velasquez.

    The Weight of Ink is a winner of a National Jewish Book Award and A USA Today bestseller. Toni Morrison writes of Rachel Kadish. “A gifted writer, astonishingly adept at nuance, narration, and the politics of passion.”

    As you know I LOVE quotes, I must leave this with you:

    “Our life is a walk in the night, we know not how great the distance to the dawn that awaits us. And the path is strewn with stumbling blocks and our bodies are grown tyrannous with weeping yet we lift our feet. We lift our feet.”Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink

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  11. It’s not from the last five years but William Boyd’s ‘Any Human Heart’ comes to mind. It’s written as a lifelong series of journals and manages to fit in many notable people and events from the twentieth century while remaining intensely personal to ‘the writer’ Logan Mountstuart.

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  12. ‘Solomon Grundy’ type books are difficult to think of actually. Especially standalones. I can think of a few that start with the main character maybe as a child and I can think of some that deal with whole generations of a family but these are either rushed or maybe in a series of books. Aye you’ve got us all thinking now.

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    • Thank you, Shehanne! Yes, stand-alone “whole life” novels might be relatively rare. And some series, as you allude to, indeed probably have a number of whole lives extended over several books. James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels are sort of an example, taking Natty Bumppo from a teen to death (though the five books were of course not written in chronological order).

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  13. Hi Dave, you mention the excellent ‘Stoner’ above and a couple of others as well. One that springs to mind is ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ by Kate Atkinson. It has quite a memorable beginning which made me think it’s a good suggestion for this week’s topic. Is it possible to include ‘Buddenbrooks’ by Thomas Mann? Maybe it’s more to do with being multigenerational. ‘Oliver Twist’ by Charles Dickens does perhaps fits this theme quite well though. And finally the excellent ‘Nectar in a Sieve’ by Kamala Murkandaya. I really enjoyed this, not least because the author manages to cover so much ground in a relatively short novel!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! Yes, “Stoner” is SO good and SO poignant, and I’m impressed that you thought of several other novels that are or might be “whole life” ones.

      I’m also impressed when an author skillfully covers a lot of ground in a relatively short novel, as you say Kamala Murkandaya does in “Nectar in a Sieve.” (Great title!)

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      • I suspect that maybe one or two of those suggestions are not strictly ‘cradle to grave’ but as near as possible in any case!
        ‘Nectar in a sieve’ is such a lovely story, although it does document so much hardship. And yes, the title does encapsulate the essence of the story very well!!

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        • Behind the scenes at the Museum was one I briefly thought about. I just couldn’t remember what happened to Ruby. it’s a while since I read it ..er… a long while actually! There’s Du Maurier’s Hungry Hill that covers various generations but while liked the epic sprawl I confess I found the re-use of some names confusing.

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          • Yeah…I just ran out of fingers and toes trying to remember when I read it 😆 I can’t remember what happened to Ruby either but hopefully it’ll get under the radar for this week 😉
            I haven’t read much du Maurier but am reading the Hitchcock/Truffaut book which examines all his films so I’m tempted to dive into the couple of books that he used by her.

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          • I know what you mean, Shehanne. If we read a novel a while ago, it can be hard to remember just how much of a life span was covered. For instance, I was thinking of including Mark Twain’s “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” in the post, but couldn’t remember how old Joan was when the novel started — and Wikipedia wasn’t specific.

            Confusing names in novels — not fun.

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      • And just thought of another which sort of covers ground from a very young age to death – ‘Operation Heartbreak’ by Duff Cooper. A rather timely mention as the film ‘Operation Mincemeat’ is recently out and Cooper created a fictionalised account of the person at the heart of the story.

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