The Middle Ages in Novels Not Set in The Middle Ages

Andrew Sean Greer

In today’s post, MLC means more literature content and…mid-life crisis.

Yes, many of us of a certain age have gone through that crisis, as have many characters in novels. Whether middle-aged people are real or fictional, they often wonder if they’ve accomplished enough…and they lament some decisions made when younger…and they worry about what the upcoming years will be like…and they perhaps make a major change or three.

Such is the case in Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2017 novel that focuses on Arthur Less as he nears his 50th birthday. Arthur is a novelist — with only modest sales, partly because he’s an out gay man — whose long-time partner is about to marry someone else. Arthur decides to escape the wedding and the United States by taking a low-budget trip around the world. Definitely mid-life crisis stuff, yet with plenty of comic moments.

Then there’s John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) starring Ethan Hawley, a married dad whose family members wish they were richer. The straight-arrow Ethan, who works in a job clearly beneath his education and abilities, starts to consider doing some unethical things. Clearly, a rather dramatic mid-life crisis.

In Cat’s Eye, the 1988 novel by Margaret Atwood, protagonist Elaine Risley returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her paintings — after which she wrestles with painful memories from her childhood and young adulthood. Looking back with regret, and perhaps making peace with some aspects of that, can be one manifestation of a mid-life crisis.  

Having an affair, or contemplating one, is another possible MLC manifestation. One example is in Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome, whose title character feels miserable about his marriage (with good reason) and falls in love with someone who happens to be his wife’s cousin. Then…

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) has a trifecta of mid-life crises — with one sibling (Denise) recently divorced, another (Gary) dealing with depression, and a third (Chip) working in a sketchy job.

Among the other novels I’ve read with MLC aspects are Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, to name a few.

Novels you’ve liked with characters experiencing the crisis thing?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a huge local Pride festival and more — is here.

132 thoughts on “The Middle Ages in Novels Not Set in The Middle Ages

  1. Then speaking of Ireland and middle age about Dracula one Horror Novel a novel by Bram Stoker, published in 1897.
    Mr. Stoker was also a big name in Dublin.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave how about The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde the only Novel written by Wilde first published in 1890.
    Started in the studio of Basil Hallward,discussing the painting of a beautiful young man. His friend Henry wanted to display the painting but Basic disagreed , he didn’t want to display the painting of Dorian Grey.
    The story continues….

    Dave , today is the fascination of many to go under the knives to look eternally beautiful, in the end the results could be the same as Dorian Grry`s face sloly became old and horrific. 

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Earliest literary midlife crises in print?

    Candidate 1: Dante, whose “Divine Comedy” commences with: “In the middle of life, I fell into a dark wood.”

    Candidate 2: Don Quixote, who, during his vital years, having consumed too many medieval chivalric romances, determines to go forth while he yet can, and smote the armored windmills in his mind.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Excellent mentions! Those are early mid-life crises indeed — many centuries ago. I’m trying remember if there was a mid-life crisis in the even earlier “Tale of Genji.” Maybe.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Here I go again! Most of Joy Fielding’s novels… deal with life crises. The cheating husband (or worse) is an often theme. “The Other Woman”, one of her earlier works, was made into an MOW.
    In “The First Time” not only is the husband cheating, again, she is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. They are affluent, a teenage daughter & in their prime of mid-life.
    The story is a testament to the resilience of human nature.

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  5. The sliding scale of middle age: In the first decades of the 19th century, when a man might reasonably have depended on dying somewhere between 50 and 70, age 30 looms large, as it’s half way to the midpoint of the age range– a fact, at this stage in our medical and nutritional knowledge we might no longer quickly recognize, but it’s very much on the mind of Alexander Pushkin–
    from “Onegin”(Falen trans.), Chapter 6, verse 44:

    O dreams! Where has your sweetness vanished?
    And where has youth (glib rhyme) been banished?
    Can it be true, its bloom has passed,
    Has withered, withered now at last?
    Can it be true, my heyday’s ended–
    All elegiac play aside–
    That now indeed my spring has died
    (As I in jest so oft pretended)?
    And is there no return of youth?
    Shall I be thirty soon, in truth?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! That is a GREAT point about middle age (and thus mid-life crises) arriving at a younger age when life spans were shorter. And I appreciate the very relevant reminder that “Eugene Onegin” is an amazing work and that Falen is an amazing translator.


      • Falen’s is the most elegantly and effortlessly done of the several– his, Nabokov’s, Hofstadter’s that I have read entirely, and Johnson’s and Elkin’s and Arndt’s, which I have dipped in and out of at whim.

        I have also now completed Nabokov’s two volumes of notes meant to accompany the single volume of “Eugene Onegin.” My understanding of the poem, its place in Russian literary history, and its source materials were greatly enhanced by the notes.

        (Have you read Byron’s “Don Juan”? I have read 90 pages– about 2 cantos– in the last week or so, and must say, if you liked EO, there will be much to love in DJ if you have not. DJ also enjoys the distinction of being Pushkin’s original model for his novel-poem…)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Although Nabokov annoys me for various reasons (“Lolita,” his huge ego, etc.) he was undeniably an accomplished writer, researcher, etc.

          I think I read some or all of “Don Juan” when I majored in English in college, but I’m not remembering exactly. Probably some, not all.

          So interesting how writers get influenced and then in turn influence others.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m inclined to say I think almost all of Tennessee Williams books/plays are about MLC, ha, i.e. your example re: Streetcar Named Desire, mine: The Roman Spring Of Mrs Stone. Then there’s Mr. Skeffington another Elisabeth Von Arnim book (author of Enchanted April as mentioned above), both being great books and great movies, and Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis which is quire similar. Last, but not least, I’d have to say Washington Square by Henry James, although I have to say Miss Sloper’s MLC being merely postponed was inevitable indeed. Some individuals, whether fictional characters or real, as Freddie Mercury observed: just want to break free.

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      • Thank you, Susi, for the Father’s Day wishes and comments! 🙂 All well said!

        You offered several great examples of mid-life-crisis-related novels. “Dodsworth” is of course among the terrific run of works Sinclair Lewis wrote in the 1920s, and I thought the sad “Washington Square” was one of Henry James’ best short novels.

        And, yes, a number of Tennessee Williams’ plays!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Thomas Mann can be depended on to deliver fiction on this general theme– “Death In Venice” being one obvious example, in which a man slowly losing vitality and even life outright becomes obsessed in the process of his demise with the beauty and vigor of a young man he spots on the beach and thenceforth cannot take his eyes away. Another is “The Black Swan”, a novella in which a 50-year-old woman imagines herself to be in the midst of some re-invigorating life process, about which she is quietly pleased. There is a process going on all right, but not anything like what she thinks is happening.

    (“Death in Venice” was made into a moving and well-made film by Luchino Visconti, the musical score supplied (posthumously) by Gustav Mahler. Dirk Bogarde and Bjorn Andresen starred, the latter playing the part of the boy, who was, on film, the closest embodiment I ever saw of that mysterious, inviting quality of spirit Da Vinci imbues in his loveliest of human subjects. Sadly, Andesen’s beauty proved more curse than gift in real life– too many around him too smitten to be respectful of his vulnerability, and too quick to use it and him to their advantage.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for those two additional examples, jhNY! You make “The Black Swan” sound very intriguing. As for Thomas Mann, I haven’t read him. Maybe one of these days. 🙂

      And, yes, there is such a thing as too good-looking. (Though of course what’s considered good-looking can be in the eye of the beholder as well as affected by cultural bias.)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Another entry: Carl Tobler, the egomanical ‘inventor’ and employer of Joseph Marti in Robert Walser’s 1908 novel The Assistant”, who takes an inheritance eventually down to less than nothing by throwing good money after strange and wrongheaded notions of public taste for gadgetry. Tobler remain convinced of his own genius, but has convinced no one else on earth, save briefly, his gullible and half-bright assistant, Marti. A shame that sportscars were so new on the market in 1908 that Tobler couldn’t have thought to buy one, and keep the rest of his money in pocket and his ruinous inventiveness in check.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great example from a memorable book, jhNY! I believe you were the person who recommended I read it a few years ago. And that was a droll thought about sports cars.

      If I’m remembering right, another novel with the same title — Bernard Malamud’s “The Assistant” — had its co-star go through a mid-life crisis of sorts.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Mid-life crisis, generously attributed,

    1) might include the male protagonist in Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome”. He is trapped in a worse than loveless marriage to a wheedly hypochondriac on a hardscrabble farm, finds unwarranted hope in the person of a younger woman, and dashes that embodied hope and himself, against an unforgiving tree. The aftermath is crippling to both, but Ethan can still drag his twisted self from chore to chore, while now two hypochondriacs languish in the farmhouse. But Frome is young enough even then that he might undergo yet another such crisis when he has reached actual middle age– a point in life that has moved up over time– at which time, given his limited range of motion and less than modest means, the crisis might express itself in such meager gestures as painting the farm wagon a bold red.

    2) might also include the narrator/protagonist of “The Financial Lives of the Poets”, a darkly humorous tale and take on a fired reporter’s various attempts to steer himself and his young family through the shifting shoals of the Great Recession. Journalism provides no second act, his senile father has lost all his retirement money to a lady of dubious virtue, his wife is having an affair, and he knowingly allows himself to fall to the temptation assumedly easy money through illegal acts. Much obfuscation, upset, legal difficulties, major and minor betrayals later, and somehow, by novel’s end, things more or less right themselves, though not without consequence. Most surprising of all, author Jess Walter manages to keep insights and laughter, cynical laughter most often, coming at a good pace. His descriptions of the newsroom, reporters, newsroom politics and the general atmosphere of a failing business within a failing business sector feel spot-on– familiar to those readers, like myself, who have been a witness and a former employee to such enterprises.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Both novels you described so well are definitely strong examples of mid-life crises for their characters. And, yes, as in your second example, there can be seriocomic aspects to MLC. (“Ethan Frome” of course was 99.9% dead serious.) And, like you, a number of aspects of journalism were quite recognizable to me in “The Financial Lives of the Poets.”

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Another fascinating blog post topic, Dave, and some interesting examples of literary MLC’s! A book that comes to my mind is Narine Abgaryan’s ‘Three Apples Fell from the Sky’, which begins with the 58 year-old Anatolia preparing for her death. Luckily she doesn’t die (it would have been a very short novel) and discovers that instead life still has plenty to offer her.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. I might put Olive Kitteridge, and its follow-up sequel Olive, Again in this category. Both excellent reads. Not only do we meet Olive when she’s just beginning her MLC ages, but we also meet several side characters who are in the same space as her. Especially in the second book we get the feel for what that is like and I found myself really appreciating it as I read. In Jennifer Chiaverini’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters, we meet a very troubled middle-aged Mrs. Lincoln, and her very concerned sisters, all in their middle ages and having to deal with Mary Lincoln’s breakdown. And finally, I have to mention one of my favorite reads from a few years ago – “Miss Benson’s Beetle,” about a middle-aged school teacher who travels the world on a whim, alongside a much longer and much quirkier assistant, to find a mythical golden beetle.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! Several excellent mid-life-crisis examples! Olive Kitteridge is definitely in the MLC category. I’ve read a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, and visited The Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington, Ky., and she was indeed a tragic figure who went through so much — including the deaths of her husband and several of their children. All undoubtedly contributing to her mental issues.

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  12. HI Dave, does a midlife crisis have to be at the protagonist own instance or can it be foisted on him / her? Stuart, Larry and Ralph in The Stand all have a crisis dropped on them that precipitates a great change in their lives. They all rise to the challenge. The same can be said for Bill Mason from The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (I love Wyndham’s books and they bowl me over considering when they were written). There is also Paul Sheldon from Misery, as Shey mentioned as well as Dick Hallorann from The Shining. I suppose one could say that Ayesha from She by Rider Haggard has a mid-life crisis when she is confronted by Leo who looks exactly like her dead lover from the past. I can’t think of any books I’ve read where the protagonist has a mid-life crisis off their own bat.

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    • Thank you, Robbie! That’s a great question. I think it can be either. That’s a very interesting way of expanding this discussion. There are definitely plenty of novels — including dystopian ones, apocalyptic ones, sci-fi ones, and of course general ones — where some major event, tragedy, challenge, etc., puts the characters through all kinds of hell. And “She” is a great mention! In Ayesha’s case, her mid-life is when she’s many hundreds of years old. 🙂

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      • Hi Dave, yes, Ayesha is a character who has fascinated me all my life. My mom let me watch the television movie when I was 8 and I never, ever forgot her stepping into that fire and turning into a very old women and then shriveling up to nothing. I have read that novel many times and that scene stills scares me to death. It was the inspiration for the death of my own priest in my novel, Through the Nethergate. Wouldn’t it be amazing to write a book that had such a powerful effect on a reader?

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        • And Haggard wrote two!
          “King Solomon’s Mines” probably figured colorfully and foremost in the dreams of a great many fantasist explorers of Darkest Wherever for generations, and also featured a forbidding queen of awesome local power.

          (Haggard wrote a short sequel, “AYESHA: The Return of She”, which has been on my TBR pile for 3+ years. To date, I cannot bring myself to crack it open, for fear it may detract from my admiration for, and pleasure in, the original.)

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          • One of these days I should read “King Solomon’s Mines,” jhNY. Sounds riveting despite its “datedness.” And I can understand the reluctance to tackle a sequel to a novel one loves; relatively few sequels measure up to the original.

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          • Hello, I also love King Solomon’s Mines. Haggard’s depictions of South Africa and the Kalahari Desert are amazing. Some of the language is very colonial, but if you can just skip over it (like I do), this book is still a jolly good read. I have also not read that sequel, but maybe now I will.

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            • Thank you, Robbie, for seconding the “King Solomon’s Mines” recommendation! A novel can definitely still be excellent despite having a colonial mentality or other flaws we wish it didn’t have.

              I’ve seen clips from the 1937 “KSM” movie that included the great Paul Robeson.

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            • Yes! My great-grandfather had a hotel (which I think is a charitable term for what was most likely a largish tent) in the Kimberley and was also a member of the Capetown Rifles before emigrating to New York at the turn of the 20th century. Among the things he carried were several explorer’s tales, lavishly illustrated, which prepared me for Haggard. I still have “A Thousand Miles Up the Nile”, by Amelia B. Edwards (1877), which has his signature in bold pencil in the flyleaf.

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        • PS Dave, Rider Haggard has rather a personal connection for my family as his mansion was in Ditchingham which is close to Bungay, the town where my mum grew up. The children used to walk along the public path that ran about his grounds and examine the house and grounds. My uncle worked for his daughter, Lilias Haggard, for a short while and she published a book called The Rabbit Skin Cap of which I have a first edition copy. The author, George Baldry was also well known to my mum as a child.

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  13. I find this saying entertaining: “It is impossible to know when the midpoint of one’s life is, so I just have an ongoing crisis” (Sometimes it feels apt).

    That aside, Us by David Nicholls had me seriously absorbed. A biochemist, who comes across as dull, has his marriage run its course. He is still in love with his artsy, vibrant wife, and it is a crisis for him indeed.

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  14. Well. I’ve been giving this some thought. The one novel that came to mind is ‘The Back of Beyond’ by Peter Stamm. This is the translated title in any case. It’s difficult to know exactly how old the man is in the novel but he certainly does a mid life crisis ‘thing’!
    Similarly, Agatha Christie provides us with a real mid life crisis, possibly fuelled by difficulties in her marriage and the death of her mother. Her 10 day disappearance in 1926 sparked a nationwide manhunt and front page news coverage. Unfortunately she never referred, publicly, to this event so we shall never know what really happened!

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    • For the past several weeks, one of the local PBS channels has been rebroadcasting the last of David Suchet’s Poirot portrayals. The fastidious Belgian has grown older, even a bit more set in his meticulous ways, and bereft of his old helpmates, Captain Hastings and Miss Peacock. But his little grey cells are still capable, and lead him to conclusions that are, in this series, most encompassing and damning of his fellow human beings. He usually comes upon a family group in crisis, usually, whatever the outward appearance of things, a crisis over money. By such an episode’s end, many assumedly innocent are found to be treacherous and misdirecting, if not outright murderous, and the rest seem so intent on gain that they will do, and often have done, terrible things.

      In Poirot’s general manner, especially post-revelation of the guilty, there is a profound world-weariness conveyed, an no small amount of distaste for his fellows– of either sex.

      I see this series as a sort of middle-age, or possible end-of-life crisis for the great detective. But, having read, perhaps too young, but a few of Christie’s Poirot books decades ago, I can’t say whether or not the filmed dramatizations are faithful to the books in plot or moral atmosphere.

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      • Thank you, jhNY! I hadn’t thought of Poirot as a mid-life or late-mid-life crisis candiate, but your comment is convincing! A number of other fictional private investigators, amateur detectives, and professional detectives undoubtedly have some MLC struggles as well. But not Nancy Drew; in her case, perhaps a mid-to-late-teen crisis. 🙂

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      • Your comments are really interesting as I’m currently listening to the second Poirot book. I’m planning on working my way through the canon so will see if the subject matter gets darker as it goes along. Perhaps her later novels, written around war time, may account for the perceived ‘darkness’ in what she’s writing. The tv episodes are great though. I know that some of the later episodes were written by Anthony Horowitz and mark Gatiss – both great at what they do and have extensive knowledge and interest in other genres such as horror which may account for the slightly darker tone also.

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        • I hope you will inform us, once you’ve gone through the books, as to whether Christie writes in a darker vein later in her own life, and in the life of her character.

          An aside, and perhaps an irrelevance: I’d think, in those later years– during which she continued to turn out mysteries– she would have found it eerie indeed that a most infamous English mass murderer shared with her the surname she acquired on the occasion of her first marriage.

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      • I wrote ‘Miss Peacock’, but it’s Miss Lemon. Also missing from the series is Poirot’s police foil, Inspector Japp.

        Ariadne Oliver, lady writer of lurid mysteries, however, appears frequently. And seldom helps in a crime’s solution, except inadvertently.

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  15. That is exactly the novel I was going to mention! Such great characters, all at different kinds of crossroads in their lives!!! The movie, starring Joan Plowright, was a visual feast! So delightful!

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  16. Oh, I love this topic, Dave. So thank you to you and Daniela Gitlin and Donna Vitale for a wonderful post and discussion.

    I have always wondered why books on mid life crisis border on the pessimistic side of life. I appreciate this is a time of contemplation and reflection. If we measure our life by a yardstick we are closer to the end than the beginning. The question becomes how do we move on, which is the underlying theme of these books.

    I found it difficult to read “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller. George Orwell’s 1984 was gloomy but very enjoyable. I recognize the brilliance of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. And there are many more books that could be added to the list of MLC.

    But the book that I loved, that inspired me to understand that there was an abundant life in the aging process was “The Enchanted April” by British writers Elizabeth Von Armin. She was inspired by a month-long holiday to the Italian Riviera. In fact, I think that she wrote the book during her stay at the 15th-century Castello Brown in Portofino.

    As always, I leave you with a quote that came from Mrs. Fisher, an elderly woman who still clings to her youthful years in the Victoria age. This is at the point that she is moving on into the unknown with a renewed expectation:

    “She had heard of dried staffs, pieces of mere dead wood, suddenly putting forth fresh leaves, but only in legend. She was not in legend. She knew perfectly what was due to herself. Dignity demanded that she should have nothing to do with fresh leaves at her age; and yet there it was–the feeling that presently, that at any moment now, she might crop out all green.” Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April

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  17. Great post Dave as always and Happy Father’s Day to you. I sometimes think that Paul Sheldon in misery is having something of a crisis. I mean he is done writing the Misery series and how… And in sways he does not foresee he is very nearly done as in, in, by Annie. I know that Lily Bart in The House of Mirth is only in her late 20s but her position depends on not turning that corner into her 30s and beyond. For m, in the grasping society she lives in it seems she fails to grasp the precariousness of her situation in terns of choices and having dug the hole, Lily digs deeper.

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    • Thank you, Shehanne, for the Father’s Day wishes, kind words, and interesting comment!

      You’re right that Paul Sheldon in “Misery” is having a mid-life crisis of sorts, even before Annie Wilkes turns things into a total horror show for him. One of Stephen King’s most intense novels, and that’s saying something.

      And, yes, in the society Lily Bart is (almost) part of, even someone as relatively young as her is essentially in mid-life-crisis territory. Maybe the best Edith Wharton novel, and depressing as hell as almost nothing goes right for Lily.

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      • Lol. I know. But she gets under Lily’s skin so magnificently you can’t look away. All about her adding up her cheque book basically and it doesn’t matter how many times she totals it, it does not total. You want to get out there and say ‘STOP’ but it’s only a book. Her future is there. In her world that is, very much bound by expectation and constraint but it’s like ‘I will do this instead,’ as if something else has hold of her. for Misery, it is intense and bit diff from some of his horror novels since the horror is the being a prisoner of Annie. But like that, if he’d just kept taking the money and churning out the books instead of deciding he could do better and it was the time to prove how literary he was…well… there would have been no story.

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        • Yes, Shehanne, a novel can be depressing as hell but impossible to put down. Lily Bart is a very sympathetic character who indeed makes wrong decisions partly due to being a single, not-rich woman in her time and place.

          And, yes again, Paul Sheldon is definitely going through what a number of novelists go through — contemplating a literary vs. mass-audience approach, trying not to be in an expected genre box, etc.

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  18. Dave Happy Fathers day to an amazing Father . raised two wonderful and talanted girls, and then there is Misty, who wiuld agree with me.
    Black Lives matter !!!

    Liked by 4 people

  19. The book with an MLC that immediately comes to mind is John Updike’s Couples. I read that book a good forty years ago, and one of the scenes was so scatalogically graphic with sexual undertones, I remember it to this day. I never read John Updike again.

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  20. What great ideas you always have, Dave, for which I thank you very much:) Some of the books you mentioned, such as Tender is the night, Der Steppenwolf or the Mosquito coast are books I very much enjoyed reading. The book LESS is new to me.
    In the meantime there is another novel, which came to my mind and which is called The Dark Side Of the Moon by the Swiss author Martin Suter. The main character is a famous buisiness lawyer, age ca. 45, who has his life under control, of course, but then it goes out off rails. A trip with hallucinogenic mushrooms leads to dangerous change of his personality!

    Liked by 5 people

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