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 Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a discontinuation of bus service, a local Hillary Clinton appearance, and a principal conundrum — is here.