Novels With Novel Premises

Donald E. Westlake. (Photo by David Jennings for The New York Times.)

What are the elements of memorable novels? Great writing and compelling characters, of course, as well as interesting plots. Then there are books with VERY interesting and/or offbeat and/or original premises — and that will be my theme today.

I just read Donald E. Westlake’s Brothers Keepers, and its premise is certainly different: a 200-year-old monastery in midtown Manhattan is threatened with demolition by greedy developers, and the monks who live there have to reluctantly go out in the world to try to save their home. The 1975 novel is a bit of a thriller, a bit of a mystery, and periodically comic. Plus there’s a surprise romantic angle.

A 2004 Jodi Picoult novel with a somewhat similar title — My Sister’s Keeper — tells the unusual story of a girl (Anna) whose parents conceived her to be an involuntary medical donor to an older sibling (Kate) with major health problems.

Wilkie Collins’ 1862 novel No Name also focuses on two sisters. In this case, Magdalen and Norah Vanstone learn that their just-deceased parents weren’t married at the time of their birth — resulting in disinheritance and social stigma for the daughters. Hardly a typical novel for its time.

Two decades earlier, Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 satirical novel Dead Souls featured a whopping premise: Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov travels in Russia to try to enrich himself by “purchasing” deceased serfs.

The word “dead” reminds me that among the Stephen King novels with out-of-the-ordinary premises is The Dead Zone (1979), in which former schoolteacher Johnny Smith wakes up from a long coma to discover that he can see into the future.

How about H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She, whose unforgettable Africa-based title character is 2,000 years old. Not many books with a protagonist eligible to collect Social Security for that long a time. ๐Ÿ™‚

Novels with ghosts can of course offer weird plot lines for which we suspend disbelief. One example is Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966), in which Dona Flor’s irresponsible but charismatic first spouse returnsย after his death.

Any novel-premised novels you’d like to mention?

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 — again about a bad firefighting deal with a wealthy neighboring town — is here.

81 thoughts on “Novels With Novel Premises

  1. It’s probably cheating to mention the whole alternative-history genre. Of those I read, the one that stands out is “Guns of the South” by Harry Turtledove — white racists from South Africa time-travel to the middle of the American Civil War with a few wagonloads of AK-47 rifles for Lee’s army. The South … doesn’t lose and the book ends with the Confederacy establishing itself as a separate nation with Lee at its head (for now). Subsequent stories in the series have the Confederate States — sometimes in concert with and sometimes at loggerheads with the US — dealing with the world into the middle of the 20th century.

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    • Thank you, Don! Yes, the alternative-history genre can definitely have some very out-of-the-ordinary plots. That Harry Turtledove series sounds fascinating — and depressing. You described it well!

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    • I’ve mentioned this book in another context but Michael Flynn’s “The Wreck of The River of Stars” was a thought-experiment in putting all of the Myers-Briggs Personality Types into a crisis situation — in this case, an obsolete and damaged spacecraft adrift in the outer Solar System — and see how they (utterly fail to) navigate the situation. As the cherry on the confusion sundae, the reader finishes the book wondering not only whether the narrator is reliable, but who (or what) the narrator is.

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      • Wow, Don — that is an unusual premise indeed! Sounds like a person’s mind would get quite a workout reading “The Wreck of The River of Stars”! Thanks for the intriguing summary.

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  2. Well, I’ve been wanting to read “The Hotel New Hampshire” by John Irving, because it sounds totally quirky.
    I wonder if my library carries it? I’ll check tomorrow. Although I have a D. Wallace Peach book in line next.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa! John Irving is almost always quirky (and very good) — also in such novels as a “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” “The World According to Garp,” “In One Person,” and (my favorite by him) “The Cider House Rules.” I’ve never read “The Hotel New Hampshire”; hope you enjoy it!

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  3. Latest of all to the party -( lumberjack might explain.)
    Lost Horizon, the eerie du Mauriers,
    including The Scapegoat,.
    Never convinced by The Prince and the Pauper.
    Abused, neglected, and – well – poor,
    how could Tom Canty be Edward’s double.
    He wouldn’t even smell right

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    • Thank you, Esther! Nice mentions, nicely presented! “Lost Horizon” is indeed an original — and mesmerizing — James Hilton novel. And, yes, “The Prince and the Pauper” — like Twain’s other switcheroo work, “Pudd’nhead Wilson” — is a suspend-belief fable of sorts.

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  4. Over the last few years, I have described here on the site, sometimes repeatedly, a few books which have kept my attention due to the cleverness of conception resident. Rather than re-recount the premises of each, I will list their titles and authors: “The Invention of Morel” by Adolfo Bioy Casares, “The Letter Killers Club” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and “The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr.Hoffman” by Angela Carter.

    If fantastic originality of premise and unique unfolding of plot would attract new readers, I unreservedly recommend each, though only Carter’s novel was written in English. I have read translations of the other two.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Quite a trifecta there! Glad you mentioned those three works again. I’ll have to try at least one of them. And I like your “cleverness of conception” phrase. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. Hi Dave, there are some novels out there that were really original and ‘break through’ ideas when they were published. Other writers built on their original ideas so they are not as unusual in the context of all that has followed. Examples are War of the Worlds and The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – outstanding ideas for their time. Dracula by Bram Stoker and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. C.S. Lewis wrote The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters which are amazingly clever. There is the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, what an innovative book for its time! The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham are also brilliant. Sometimes you think these authors can foretell the future. Another astonishing book is Brave New World, my goodness, I get the shudders when I think of that book. So compelling and frightening. A great post, Dave.

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    • Thank you, Robbie! I appreciate you naming MANY different novels that were different. In some cases hugely different; in other cases a little less different but still significantly so. For instance, as you know, “The Time Machine” was not the first time-travel work — those that preceded it included, among others, Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” and Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” — but H.G. Wells definitely put an original spin on that genre. And, yes, “Brave New World” was something else! All very well said by you.

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  6. Another great post, Dave. Sorry Iโ€™m late to the party but I been in transit this past week. We are back just in time to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving. The first book that came to mind was โ€œThree Apples Fell from the Skyโ€ by Narine Abgaryan. It was a complete surprise to me and one that I still think of with a warmhearted feeling. I have made a note that I will reread this book. The story begins with an old Armenian saying: โ€œAnd three apples fell from heaven: One for the storyteller, One for the listener, And one for the eavesdropper.โ€ This book prompted me to consider reading other books that have been translated for they offer the gift of diversity.

    I love the photo with the two typewriters. I regret that I lost my trust typewriter in all my moves, but I think that you have an original at your place.

    By the way, I have just finished โ€œTuesdays with Morrieโ€ by Mitch Albom. Because this is Thanksgiving Day for us, I thought that I would end with this quote:

    โ€œThis is part of what a family is about, not just love. It’s knowing that your family will be there watching out for you. Nothing else will give you that. Not money. Not fame. Not work.โ€

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    • Thank you, Rebecca! You’re not very late at all. ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope your travels have been enjoyable. So nice that going away is more of an option these days compared to 2020 and 2021. A belated Happy Thanksgiving!

      “Three Apples Fell From the Sky” is definitely still high on my to-read list. It sounds amazing, and I love the quote from it you posted.

      Yes — old typewriters! Fun to look at. I do still have one from the 1920s that my maternal grandparents originally used. It weighs a ton. ๐Ÿ™‚ And I still have a portable typewriter that I bought in the late ’70s for college. My younger daughter Maria tried it a few years ago, when she was not yet a teen, and she thought it was VERY exotic compared to a computer. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Wise words from Mitch Albom!

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      • I am envisioning what your maternal grandparents would think about Maria thinking their typewriter was exotic. It would have been an amazing communication tool for them. But I wonder what they would think of our current technology? And what those who live 50 years from now will think of ours. We never experience the whole story of an idea, do we?

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        • Fascinating thoughts, Rebecca! I guess that’s one of the appeals of time-travel novels — seeing depicted what stunned, awestruck characters think of things in the far future or the distant past. When people our age stop and think about what technology was like when we were kids vs. what it’s like now, it boggles the mind. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. Oooooh what an interesting topic this week. I might put Anthony Doerr’s “Cloud Cuckoo Land” in this category. Although there were some elements about it that rang familiar, the idea of basing it around an ancient manuscript felt very new to me, and it gave the book a very mystical feel that is so unlike his other work. It’s a pretty good book, if you ever want to check it out. I’m also really enjoying all the books these days that are beginning to explore the idea of parallel-universe theory, with special mention going to Matt Haig’s “the Midnight Library.” Also excellent reading, although not quite as good as his “How to Stop Time.” My opinion only, of course! ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Thank you, M.B.! That ancient manuscript angle in “Cloud Cuckoo Land” does sound different. And, yes, “The Midnight Library” did have a very interesting premise. I suppose parallel-universe content (like time-travel content in even more cases) has been done multiple times, but that kind of approach is almost always fascinating. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  8. Lots of interesting novels mentioned here, Dave. Three of Kazuo Ishiguru’s novels fit the bill I think. With two of them, “The Unconsoled” and “Never Let Me Go” you aren’t even sure what the premise is! With the former, not until the end of the story and with the latter, it unfolds slowly. With the third, “Klara and the Sun,” you know the premise. But it’s very unique, to say the least. I try to read very little about novels, since I want the enjoyment of discovery. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  9. Is Westlake’s book based on the real story of the reclusive Collyer brothers? Sounds like Brothers Keepers is one that I’ll have to add to my tbr list. Another on my tbr list is Does God Ever Speak Through Cats by David Evans. Since art imitates life, please indulge me while I share an incident re the offbeat veering from the premise. A particular joke was shared by my grandson with his class, his teacher having asked the students to include one in their essays. So here goes: Why did the chicken go to the seance? To get to the other side. Unfortunately his teacher had to google the word seance not knowing what it was, and after finding out, told my grandson that she wouldn’t allow it because it was satanic. Alas, chicken jokes are now the purveyors of darkness. Thanx. Susi

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  10. I have read “My sister’s keeper” which gave me food for thought for months, as for Wilkie Collins, I have read “The woman in white,” the other books you mentioned I haven’t read -so far.
    As for odd features or characters? Armor Towels “A Gentleman in Moscow” is an amazing read (in my humble opinion.)

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  11. ( Possible spoilers) Many novels have odd features but Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” struck me as novel in several ways. The female narrator/protagonist was unnamed, the title character died before the beginning of the novel, and the book ended very abruptly.

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  12. I read it back in the ’80s, so the details are fuzzy, but the novel that immediately came to mind was Stephen Millhouser’s debut Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954. Here’s the Amazon description:

    “Edwin Mullhouse, a novelist at 10, is mysteriously dead at 11. As a memorial, Edwin’s bestfriend, Jeffrey Cartwright, decides that the life of this great American writer must be told. He follows Edwin’s development from his preverbal first noises through his love for comic books to the fulfillment of his literary genius in the remarkable novel, Cartoons.”

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  13. Dave, the first book that came to mind was Dan Brown’s 2003 mystery thriller, The Da Vinci Code. Its incredible premise and intricate plot kept me hooked to the final reveal. As a Jodi Picoult fan, I’ve read My Sister’s Keeper. I haven’t read Jorge Amadoโ€™s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966), but enjoyed watching the Brazilian 1998 TV series.

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