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. 🙂
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 returns 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.