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.