Two Eras in One Fictional Work

Many readers have an affinity for PT. Physical therapy? In some cases. But what I’m talking about is parallel timelines.

Those timelines can be very appealing in novels. We get two stories for the price of one, in two disparate eras. We see that people from distinct historical periods are different (in the way they speak, in what they wear, in the “devices” they use, in cultural norms, etc.) yet emotionally not so different (most people from any era want love, good health, security, and enough money to be comfortable; feel anger and jealousy; etc.).

Parallel timelines are not easy for an author. A lot of research is involved, and characters from centuries or many decades apart have to be depicted in different ways. Then, for the icing on the cake, the expected connections between characters from different eras should be revealed slowly and convincingly.

Barbara Kingsolver does all this expertly and compellingly in her wonderful novel Unsheltered, which I read last week. The book chronicles an interesting extended family from the mid-2010s and, in alternating chapters, equally interesting characters from the mid-1870s — including several partly fictionalized real people such as Mary Treat, known for her groundbreaking work as a naturalist and for her copious correspondence with Charles Darwin.

Connections across the 140 years in the 2018 book? The 21st-century family and a 19th-century science teacher live/lived on the same site in Vineland, New Jersey. There are teachers in each era, and journalists, too; unconventional women in both time periods; a compatible marriage in one century and an incompatible one in the other; authoritarian villains in the background in each period; and the main characters in both story lines face serious challenges, economic and otherwise. Unsheltered has drama, poignancy, humor, topical commentary, and other trademarks of a Kingsolver novel.

Another fabulous novel with dual timelines is A.S. (Antonia Susan) Byatt’s Possession, about two 20th-century academics researching a previously undiscovered romance between two 19th-century poets. A riveting 1990 book.

Then there are the flashback scenes in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series that show Tom Riddle as a Hogwarts student. (We see a much younger Dumbledore, too.) Tom grew up to become the evil Lord Voldemort, who of course is featured a lot more in the Potter books than his younger Riddle self.

Not surprisingly, parallel eras are also depicted in time-travel novels.

For instance, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand features a 20th-century man who uses a drug to make multiple visits to the 14th-century version of the same English town, where we witness the lives and schemes of various long-ago people.

There’s also Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, in which the 1900s-born Claire spends time in both that century and the 1700s. Same for her daughter Brianna and son-in-law Roger.

Anything you’d like to say about this theme, including other novels that fit it?

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 discontinuation of bus service, a local Hillary Clinton appearance, and a principal conundrum — is here.

A Year of Good Reads Long Before Goodreads

Agatha Christie

Many a specific year featured a variety of interesting fiction, but 1937 was an especially eclectic 12 months for literature.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Of Mice and Men, The Hobbit, the first Dr. Seuss book, and more.

That “more” includes Death on the Nile, which I finished last week. I’ve only read a handful of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, but this was a good one — considered among her best. An ingenious plot, many suspects with lots of personality, the ever-observant detective Hercule Poirot seeing what no one else sees. A novel with some flaws — the depiction of people of color (when they’re depicted at all) is cringe-worthy, though I suppose the book being “of its time” is a partial excuse. Also, the book’s leftist character is laughably caricatured. Fortunately, and not surprisingly, Christie does much better in vividly portraying a number of memorable women in Death on the Nile.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is the 20th-century classic about the experiences of African-American woman Janie Crawford. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the compelling novella featuring two migrant workers in Depression-era California. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which of course would become the prequel to the 1950s-published trilogy The Lord of the Rings, is a delightful fantasy adventure story for “children of all ages.” And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street started Dr. Seuss on a kid-book career that would make him perhaps the genre’s most famous author.

The year 1937 also saw the publication of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, which I “Have Not” read (yet). In the memoir realm, there was Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, which I have read — and enjoyed.

I’ll end by noting that some famous writers unfortunately died in 1937 — most notably Edith Wharton, H.P Lovecraft, and Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie.

Any thoughts on 1937 fiction I mentioned and didn’t 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — with a Pink Floyd-meets-local-news theme — is here.

Authors, Like Gymnasts, Don’t Always ‘Stick the Landing’

Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images

Many excellent novels have excellent endings — conclusions that might be upbeat or downbeat but are done well, feel satisfying, and make sense in the context of the books as a whole. Among the many famous novels with fine finishes are The Great Gatsby, A Tale of Two Cities, The Grapes of Wrath, The Brothers Karamazov, and Silas Marner.

Then there are excellent novels that don’t quite “stick the landing.” Their endings are either too positive or too negative for the story lines, or too rushed, or too drawn out, or have other flaws. I will discuss some disappointing finales, while not revealing too much in the way of specific spoilers.

Why are some conclusions less than top-notch? No author is perfect, of course; sometimes, it’s just hard to end a novel well. Or perhaps the author has a deadline, or is tired of the book, or wants to get on to her/his next book, or…

This topic occurred to me last week while reading John Grisham’s Sooley — a very good novel about an admirable African teen named Samuel Sooleymon who comes to the U.S. to play college basketball. The book had compelling feel-good elements and wrenching tragic elements, but the ending just felt wrong and out-of-character for the protagonist. A problematic conclusion can obviously affect one’s feelings about an entire book; in the case of Sooley, that single jarring late scene in a 368-page novel bumped it from an A- to a B- for me.

A similar thing happened a few years ago when I was reading My Sister’s Keeper. I found that Jodi Picoult novel to be absorbing and heartbreaking as we saw a child conceived specifically to be a medical donor to her ill sister — and watched that younger sibling grow to understandably resent her “purpose.” Then, as in Sooley, a late plot development came out of left field and had me going “Whaaat?” The result was another B-, this time dropping from a full A.

Not that the unexpected is always bad. For instance, the twist in (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother — to name another sibling-themed novel — was ingenious and more realistic than where I thought the story was going. And of course mystery fiction can often have great concluding twists, aided by red herrings along the way.

Do thwarted couples in various novels get together at the end, or not? Either finish can make sense, depending on the book, but I thought Edith Wharton made the wrong choice in her otherwise terrific The Age of Innocence.

When Margaret Atwood decided to write a sequel more than 30 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, I wondered how close it would be in quality to the initial novel. As it turned out, pretty close — The Testaments was really good. But the concluding pages seemed rushed after the previous parts of the novel unfolded just right.

There was an opposite issue with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. After the breathtaking drama in most of the trilogy, the last few dozen pages felt like an extended epilogue. Poignant, with some insight into what we would today call post-traumatic stress syndrome, but things seemed too drawn out.

The Harry Potter series? I had no problem with the exciting and cathartic ending of the seventh book, even as some earlier parts of that final book in J.K. Rowling’s series dragged at times. But then the author tacked on an epilogue showing the teen characters as adults a number of years later. Interesting to see, but it felt kind of clunky and “summarized.”

I’ll conclude by discussing a couple of 19th-century novels.

The House of the Seven Gables ending came off as too positive for the earlier parts of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mostly melancholy book. Very glad I read the novel, though.

And Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was going along amazingly — with the pitch-perfect depictions of Huck and Jim, their relationship, and the memorable supporting characters they met while traveling on the Mississippi — until Tom Sawyer entered the picture in the latter section of the novel. He was annoying, things got too “slapsticky,” and the book went from an A++ to an A. It almost made one wish that Tom didn’t escape the cave in the earlier novel in which he starred. 🙂

Any examples you’d like to mention of great novels that could have ended in a more satisfying way? 

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 some weirdly fantastical fake upgrades to my town’s school buildings — is here.

When Claustrophobia Isn’t Fear of Santa

Claustrophobic fiction! Books of that sort are usually quite intense as we sympathize with physically or mentally “confined” characters, wonder if things will improve for them, and think of what we might do if we found ourselves in a similar situation.

I just read Belgian author Georges Simenon’s Across the Street, and it sure was claustrophobic. The poignant novel features a lonely, depressed woman named Dominique who — because of low self-esteem, a problematic upbringing, a years-ago romance that ended tragically, and current economic difficulty — withdraws into an existence where she mostly stays in her Paris apartment and eavesdrops not only on the couple who rent a room from her but on a dysfunctional family living across the street.

Another recently read book — No Plan B, the latest Jack Reacher thriller by Lee and Andrew Child — is partly set in a jail. Prisons and prison cells are of course claustrophobic places, as we also see in such novels as Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Colleen McCullough’s Morgan’s Run, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and Henri Charriere’s Papillon. It’s certainly cathartic when, in some cases, protagonists escape or reach the end of their prison terms.

Obviously, ships can be claustrophobic, too. A half-dozen Herman Melville novels come to mind, including lesser-known ones such as Redburn and White-Jacket. Plus Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure, and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, among many others. Most horribly claustrophobic is the hold of a slave ship, as in the early section of Alex Haley’s Roots.

There are also novels in which small casts of characters are isolated near bodies of water. Some of them include Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, and M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.

Getting back to Jack Reacher novels, one of the most claustrophobic scenes in the 27-book series is when the huge Reacher (6’5″/250 pounds) has little room to maneuver while battling a bad guy in a cramped South Dakota underground bunker. That climactic moment is in 61 Hours.

Speaking of limited hours, a novel can feel claustrophobic when it covers a small amount of time — as with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway focusing on a single day.

And if a disability or catastrophic injury limit how much a person can move, things get pretty claustrophobic for that person. Think of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.

In the short story realm, it doesn’t get much more “enclosed” than the settings of such Edgar Allan Poe tales as “The Premature Burial” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Fiction you’ve read that fits this theme?

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 my town’s leaders not always practicing what they preach — is here.