Marrying Marriage Ceremonies to Literature

The wedding in A Walk to Remember‘s movie version. (Screen shot by me.)

I’ll be attending a family wedding this coming weekend, so naturally I’ll write today about…weddings in literature.

As in real life, fictional weddings can be wonderful and/or weird and/or lavish and/or bare bones and/or dramatic and/or problematic and/or heartwarming and/or…whatever.

One of the most famous fictional wedding ceremonies is that of the title character and Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 classic Jane Eyre. They are a couple very much in love, but, as many of you know, Rochester has quite a secret. Will it be revealed before the duo says “I do”?

Also memorable is the union of Gervaise and Coupeau in Emile Zola’s 1877 novel The Drinking Den. The couple spend more money on the nuptials than they can afford, the priest who marries them is surly, and the guests get lost in The Louvre museum while killing time between the ceremony and reception. Gervaise had been reluctant to marry Coupeau, or any man, and the imperfect wedding is a harbinger of the disasters that will follow after a few years of happiness.

Their daughter would meet with her own disasters in a subsequent Zola novel, 1880’s Nana.

In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, the wedding of Claire and Jamie takes place not long after Claire involuntarily time-travels from the 1900s to the 1700s. The two barely know each other, and the union is basically forced — making for a tension-filled yet partly humorous situation. But, lo and behold, the 20th-century-born Claire and the 18th-century-born Jamie by chance end up being very compatible even as they face many daunting challenges in the rest of the novel and its sequels.

Claire and Jamie tied the knot in the first Outlander book, but sometimes it pays to build things up more gradually. For instance, Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe have like-dislike interactions in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and beyond. It’s not until the fourth sequel — Anne’s House of Dreams — that they marry. The wedding scene, and Montgomery’s writing of it, are worth the wait. As with Claire and Jamie, Anne and Gilbert are ultimately compatible.

Nicholas Sparks’ tear-jerker A Walk to Remember features the unexpected high-school-student relationship between the popular Landon and the ostracized Jamie, who’s immensely good-hearted but considered “uncool” for dressing poorly and being religious. We learn she is terminally ill, but the two teens marry anyway in a beautiful ceremony. The novel, whose story is told 40 years later by Landon, leaves things ambiguous as to whether Jamie died or not.

Then there’s the wedding element in Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations. Miss Havisham was jilted at the altar by a scoundrel, and becomes a bitter/depressed recluse who never gets over the traumatic nuptials experience she had as a young woman.

On a more upbeat note, Jane Austen novels are known for a number of “happy ending” weddings after complications and obstacles are overcome. The marriage ceremonies tend to be mentioned more than actually depicted.

Your thoughts about, and examples of, today’s theme?

My next blog post will run on Monday, May 8, rather than the usual Sunday.

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 two Black firefighters suing over blatant racism in my town’s “leadership” — is here.

A Range of Role Reversal Reads

Roll reversals! When you eat a roll from the bottom up. Actually, my topic this week is ROLE reversals…in literature.

There’s plenty of potential drama in those reversals — including how the protagonists act in the unexpected/unfamiliar situations they find themselves in, and how other people react to those characters. 

Perhaps the best known example of a role reversal in fiction is Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, whose two main characters dizzyingly switch stations in life. But role reversals can be more realistic and recognizable.

In a novel I recently read — Kristin Hannah’s heart-wrenching, masterful Home Front — Jolene is deployed as a helicopter pilot in the Iraq War while her attorney husband Michael remains on the…home front…to take care of their two daughters. A somewhat unusual gender reversal. Of course, many women are now in the military, but the novel is set nearly 20 years ago and there are still many more cases where the man is the member of the couple overseas.

Jolene and Michael’s marriage is already on shaky ground before the deployment, partly because Michael opposed the Bush administration’s unnecessary, disastrous invasion of Iraq, even as Jolene was a pilot in the National Guard. Then, something happens to Jolene in the war zone that makes things REALLY challenging. Ms. Hannah certainly doesn’t sugar-coat the situation. 

Another recently read novel — Mary Robinette Kowal’s absorbing The Fated Sky, sequel to The Calculating Stars — continues the alternate-history story of female American astronaut Dr. Elma York into the early 1960s, a time when all real-life American astronauts were men. All white men, too, while Kowal’s fictional crew to Mars includes several women and men of color. They experience plenty of bias from one racist crew member, but they’re there.

Herman Melville’s gripping 1855 novella Benito Cereno is set on a slave ship where a very clever and intricate role reversal has taken place. Another example of how Melville was one of the few 19th-century authors to give characters of color significant roles and some three-dimensionality — as he did with Queequeg four years earlier in Moby-Dick.

A time-travel novel with quite a generational reversal is Marlys Millhiser’s The Mirror, in which a granddaughter and grandmother involuntarily switch bodies and the years they live in (1978 and 1900). Major culture shock for both.

Also a role reversal of sorts is when novels make animals the main characters and humans the secondary ones. Various examples of this, with the two I read last year being Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song (featuring cats) and Jane Smiley’s Perestroika in Paris (starring a horse and other critters).

Your thoughts about, and examples of, 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a local legal expenses controversy and more — is here.

Not-Terrific Novels Can Still Be Quite Good

Margaret Atwood (photo by Chris Boland/Flickr

If you really like a writer, even their “lesser” novels can be appealing.

I recently experienced that with The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood — a 2015 novel, by one of my favorite living authors, that I had somehow failed to read before. Far from her best book, but it’s still a fairly engrossing, socially conscious, and at times funny work of speculative fiction about people escaping a U.S. turned dystopian for a closed U.S. community where they all alternate between a house and a prison. A community that, not surprisingly, turns out to be rather dystopian, too. The weirdly humorous parts? Well, for one thing, prepare to meet multiple Elvis Presleys and Marilyn Monroes.

Willa Cather, whose authorial career ended a year after Atwood was born, is best known for My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. But she also wrote a number of other novels ranging from good to very good — including The Song of the Lark (about an opera singer), One of Ours (a World War I novel), and Shadows on the Rock (historical fiction set in Quebec City).

James Hilton is also best known for two novels — the moving Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the eye-opening Lost Horizon — but some of his not-as-scintillating works, including So Well Remembered, are rather nice, too.

Maugham is most famous for Of Human Bondage, and also pretty famous for The Painted Veil, The Razor’s Edge, and The Moon and Sixpence. But there’s a pretty good sleeper amid the Maugham canon: Cakes and Ale, which is more compelling than its title might indicate.

Aldous Huxley? The iconic Brave New World is practically synonymous with his name, but he wrote several not-iconic novels that are quite readable — including the not-dystopian Point Counter Point.

Getting back to favorite living authors, I give many of Liane Moriarty’s novels an A or A+. But even the one I liked least — Truly Madly Guilty, focusing on a fateful barbecue — more than held my interest.

Good but not terrific Jane Austen? Northanger Abbey. Charles Dickens? Hard Times. Herman Melville? Omoo. Anne Bronte? Agnes Grey. Mark Twain? Pudd’nhead Wilson. John Steinbeck? The Wayward Bus. Isabel Allende? The Japanese Lover. Donna Tartt? The Little Friend. Etc.

Anything you’d like to say related to this week’s 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 a time machine, a bridge, and a $1,000 (!) dessert — is here.

Late in Life in Literature

The movie version of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night novel starred Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. 

A person’s later years comprise a life’s p.m. — which also might stand for poignant and moving. There can be declining health, death of loved ones, loneliness, regrets, and other negatives — as well as positives such as the gaining of wisdom and the experiencing of memorable “last hurrahs.”

Such is the case with various fictional characters — including the older protagonists in Kent Haruf’s bittersweet novel Our Souls at Night, which I read “late” last month. It stars a widowed woman (Addie) and a widowed man (Louis) who barely knew each other as neighbors when their spouses were alive but develop an interestingly offbeat relationship soon after the compelling book begins. They find a good measure of happiness but also face challenges — such as dealing with judgmental residents of their small town, a son who tries to break up their relationship, and the responsibilities of taking care of a previously neglected grandchild. Making Our Souls at Night even more elegiac is that it was Haruf’s final novel, published about six months after his 2014 death.

There are few novels with as much of a “last hurrah” as Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, whose protagonist experiences more adventures after reaching the century mark than most people a quarter or half his age.

Or how about Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman? That book uses the main character’s extremely advanced age (110) to recount Jane’s often-difficult life as well as take a general look at the U.S. sociopolitical climate from the time of slavery to the modern civil rights movement.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, about a very delayed late-life romance, also fits this theme. The male co-protagonist can be annoyingly sexist at times, but the novel is beautifully written.

Among the many other lead or supporting characters who are memorable in old age are the brilliant wizard Dumbledore of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, the long-suffering Iris Chase of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Miss Marple the amateur detective in various Agatha Christie mysteries, Emily Pollifax the amateur spy in Dorothy Gilman’s novels, the loner grandfather in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, the problematic family patriarch Larry Cook in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, the woodsman Natty Bumppo at end of life in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie, the dying George Washington Crosby in Paul Harding’s Tinkers, the “Chowder Society” men in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, and of course the title character in Honore de Balzac’s Old Goriot as well as Santiago the fisherman in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Any thoughts on this week’s theme and novels you’ve read 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 an outrageous monetary demand from a misogynist township manager and some alternatives to the ending of a long-time local bus service — is here.

‘Fish Out of Water’ Are ‘C’ (Character) Creatures

Ten years ago, before I started this blog, I wrote a piece about characters who are “fish out of water.” Time to revisit that “fishional”…um…fictional topic by discussing some novels I’ve read since 2013 that are relevant to this theme.

As I noted back then, there’s often lots of drama and/or comedy when authors transport protagonists to a much different place. Those characters may initially “flounder” and have embarrassing moments — which is not good for them but interesting to read about. Then they might eventually get their bearings, experience new things, meet new people, and gain more confidence — which is good for them and also interesting to read about. Even if characters don’t adapt to new locales, there’s drama in that, too.

And readers — many of whom have been “fish out of water” themselves during vacations or after moving to new places — can compare their own real-life memories with the made-up situations depicted by authors.

Last week, I read John Grisham’s Gray Mountain, which tells the story of a young attorney at a big Manhattan law firm who unexpectedly ends up working at a legal-aid clinic in a small Virginia town. Samantha Kofer experiences culture shock far from her beloved New York City, but satisfaction as well practicing meaningful law for low-income clients. Samantha also finds herself in danger when she gets on the radar of Big Coal, which always plays hardball to keep the profits rolling in — whatever the cost to workers, to residents living near strip mines, and to the environment.

Another novel with a leaving-a-larger-population dynamic is Joyce Carol Oates’ Solstice, in which newly divorced Monica Jensen takes a job teaching in rural Pennsylvania — where she gets to know a rather interesting, problematic woman.

The opposite dynamic — small town to big city — probably happens more often in literature. One memorable example is when Denise Baudu moves to Paris in Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight to work in a large department store. Another is when Molly Bolt, in Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, leaves an anti-LGBTQIA+ environment in Florida (sound familiar? 😦 ) to move to New York City.

Immigrants/long-time visitors to other countries are very much “fish out of water” at first. So many novels with that motif: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, James Clavell’s Shogun, Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, Wilkie Collins’ A Rogue’s Life, etc.

Being a “fish out of water” can of course be mostly positive. Such is the case with Anne Shirley of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, who leaves an orphanage to live with adult siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert in a house and rural area she finds bucolic — though obviously life isn’t perfect.

Science fiction certainly makes characters “fish out of water” as they might exit the Earth for other worlds or visit Earth from other worlds. So many examples, including the human colonizers of The Red Planet in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

Not surprisingly, time travel novels also offer major “fish out of water” experiences for characters visiting the past or future. Some books, including Jack Finney’s Time and Again, even give us both of that. Much of Finney’s novel is devoted to Simon Morley’s trips to 1880s New York City from the second half of the 20th century. Later, the woman Simon falls in love with — Julia Charbonneau — accompanies him back to HIS time in Manhattan. She is certainly shocked by all the cars, the less-modest clothing, TVs, and more.

Last but not least, animals can be “fish out of water,” too — without being sea creatures. 🙂 Jack London’s The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck the canine being yanked from “civilization” to become a sled dog in…the wild, while London’s novel White Fang features the opposite scenario: from the wild to “civilization” for its title character. That part-dog/part-wolf is as shocked as Julia Charbonneau when seeing a big city, in this case San Francisco.

Any examples of, or thoughts about, this week’s 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a municipal budget and a misogynist township manager who seemingly can’t be gotten rid of — is here.