Low-Key Novels That Are High in Memorability

OveHave you ever read a novel that’s mostly low-key, subtle, understated, and even seemingly simple yet is compelling or charming or funny or emotionally wrenching or all of the above? Sure you have, and I have, too.

The latest for me was A Man Called Ove, which I finished a few days ago. That 2012 novel by Swedish author Fredrik Backman initially appears to be a few-frills tale of a very grumpy 59-year-old loner until it sneaks up on the reader — with help from a gradually unfolding back story — to become a wonderfully quirky, romantic, inspiring, humanistic, multicultural, heartbreaking, better-have-tissues-handy book. A novel so good that it powerfully reinforces one of the reasons we read fiction: hoping for that occasional can’t-put-down work. (The above photo, from the movie, shows a young Ove at the time he meets his future wife Sonja.)

Another understated novel is Mrs. Bridge, which is more downbeat overall than A Man Called Ove but shares a certain outward plainness that masks many beneath-the-surface themes: in this case, Evan Connell’s tale of a well-to-do family says a lot about class, conformity, unhappiness, the emptiness of too much materialism, and more.

There’s also Being There, the satirical Jerzy Kosinski novel with a flatness literally embodied in its flat protagonist: the simple-minded gardener Chance who somehow becomes considered an oracle of sorts. The book is far from flat; that’s just its veneer.

Gigi is nowhere near my favorite Colette work — the novel is sort of frivolous and its central relationship doesn’t grab me. But it’s beautifully written in its low-key way, and is more complex than it seems.

How about A Christmas Carol? A short, fairly straightforward morality tale from the usually more intricate Charles Dickens, but there’s a reason why it has endured for more than 175 years: It skillfully depicts many recognizable human (and ghostly 🙂 ) traits.

And The Remains of the Day. Kazuo Ishiguro’s story of a butler is extremely understated, but strong emotions and secrets boil under the surface.

Then there’s James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips — about a gentle, long-tenured boarding school teacher who’s at first conventional and kind of stiff before his brief marriage makes him a looser, more tolerant person and educator.

Many of Fannie Flagg’s novels — including her most recent, The Whole Town’s Talking (2016) — also sort of fit this category. Those books are folksy and sentimental, yet quietly take on issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia.

And Henry James’ writing (especially in mid- and late-career) is FAR from simple but almost always understated — as in The Ambassadors. Strong passions are repressed, but never totally repressed.

Even in low-key novels, beleaguered protagonists might eventually erupt in some way. That’s the case in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls — and in A Man Called Ove, too.

Your favorite works that fit 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which includes humorous fake answers to a superintendent-search survey — is here.

The Number of Syllables in a Novel’s Title: How Vital?

Blue MoonAfter reading Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel last week, I thought about how page-turning that series is and how it reflects our times. Heck, there’s an amazing/harrowing “fake news” reference near the end of that recent book, which chronicles Reacher’s battle against rival mobs that ruthlessly control a city.

I also thought about the novel’s title — Blue Moon — and how there’s something very punchy about titles with two syllables, even though they can’t always convey much info. Five of the more than 20 other Reacher books also have two-syllable titles, as do…Jane Eyre! Kindred! Sula! White Teeth! Nana! Suttree! White Fang! Shogun! Ragtime! The Firm! (By Charlotte Bronte, Octavia E. Butler, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Emile Zola, Cormac McCarthy, Jack London, James Clavell, E.L. Doctorow, and John Grisham, respectively.)

Yes, short titles sometimes are the main character’s name, which makes a lot of sense for certain novels.

Anyway, I decided after finishing Blue Moon to go through the list of novels I’ve read or reread during the past 20 years (yes, I do keep a list 🙂 ) to see how many had titles with one syllable, two syllables, three syllables, etc. Was there one syllabic category significantly more popular than the others?

Of course, this laborious exercise was totally unscientific and perhaps meaningless, but the memorability of a title — which can be partly affected by its number of syllables — might mean a little something.

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with one-syllable titles: 5. Among them: Rose (Martin Cruz Smith) and March (Geraldine Brooks).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with two-syllable titles: 82. Among them: See my second paragraph.

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with three-syllable titles: 139. Among them: Middlemarch (George Eliot), Persuasion (Jane Austen), Moby-Dick (Herman Melville), Empire Falls (Richard Russo), The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt), The Last Man (Mary Shelley), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Huntress (Kate Quinn), Outlander (Diane Gabaldon), Still Alice (Lisa Genova), The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler), Caravans (James Michener), and History (Elsa Morante).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with four-syllable titles: 158. Among them: The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarty), The Shell Seekers (Rosamunde Pilcher), So Much for That (Lionel Shriver), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte), The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen), Light in August (William Faulkner), Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev), and A Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with five-syllable titles: 148. Among them: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham), Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery), The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), Rubyfruit Jungle (Rita Mae Brown), The Captain’s Daughter (Alexander Pushkin), The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton), From a Buick 8 (Stephen King), and One for the Money (Janet Evanovich).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with six-syllable titles: 71. Among them: Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver), The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton), Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston), Marjorie Morningstar (Herman Wouk), A Is for Alibi (Sue Grafton), and Devil in a Blue Dress (Walter Mosley).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with seven-syllable titles: 51. Among them: The Portrait of a Lady (Henry James), The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte), The Heart of Midlothian (Sir Walter Scott), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), Go Tell It On the Mountain (James Baldwin), The Accidental Tourist (Anne Tyler), and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with eight-syllable titles: 32. Among them: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque), The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov), In the Time of the Butterflies (Julia Alvarez), The Temple of My Familiar (Alice Walker), Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Jorge Amado), and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with nine-syllable titles: 11. Among them: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain) and A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 10-syllable titles: 10. Among them: The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (Dorothy Gilman) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (Douglas Adams).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 11-syllable titles: 2. Among them: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (Charles Dickens).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 12-syllable titles: 5. Among them: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Fannie Flagg).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 13-syllable titles: 2. Among them: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 14-syllable titles: 1. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (Edgar Allan Poe).

Some conclusions: Four-, five-, and three-syllable titles were the most plentiful. I suppose titles of those lengths are short enough to be punchy but long enough to convey a decent amount of information and/or “turn a phrase.”

Also, while a good title of course helps, especially in cases where we don’t initially know an author’s work, it’s what’s in the novel that counts the most! Heck, when we know and love an author’s work, the title of their next book could be almost anything. 🙂

How many syllables do the titles of your favorite novels have? Does the number of syllables in a book title matter to you? Anything else you’d like to say about this weird 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which is partly about an awful presidential endorsement — is here.

More Than Zero Interest in Zero-Year Novels

PossessionIt’s anniversary time again! With a month-plus of 2020 “in the books,” I’d like to mention some of my favorite (not necessarily the best) novels that were published in 1970, 1920, 1870, and various other years ending in that big ol’ round number of zero. And then you can tell me some of your favorites.

Let’s go chronologically backwards, shall we?

I already mentioned several novels published in 2010 and 2000 when I discussed my 2010-2019 faves last September in this post and my 2000-2009 faves a week later in this post, so I won’t repeat my brief summaries of those books here. Included were the 2010-released So Much for That by Lionel Shriver, 61 Hours by Lee Child, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith; and the 2000-released Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon.

Anyway, on to (back to) 1990! My favorite novel of that year, and one of my top-ten novels of any time, is A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Her book is about two 20th-century academics researching the possible romance between two fictional 19th-century poets, and it’s much more compelling than that description sounds. There’s also Walter Mosley’s really good Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of his many novels starring detective Easy Rawlins; and Darryl Brock’s page-turner If I Never Get Back, one of my favorite time-travel works and one of my favorite baseball-themed works. Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour (its title is kind of self-explanatory) is also a pretty darn good 1990 read, albeit a bit overlong.

Published in 1980? Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a gripping 14th-century murder mystery set in an Italian monastery; John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously released A Confederacy of Dunces, which is about as funny and quirky as a novel can be; and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, a haunting work about three generations of women.

My favorite 1970 novel — 50 years ago — is Jack Finney’s time-travel tour de force Time and Again, which has the bonus of being illustrated with great 19th-century photos of New York City.

The best 1960 novel is a no-brainer: Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill a Mockingbird, which deserves all its renown and sales. I’m also a fan of Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey, about two dogs and a cat trying to find their way home across 300 miles of Canadian wilderness.

A decade earlier, 1950 had high-profile titles such as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Things were even more impressive in 1940 with Richard Wright’s Native Son (a searing look at race), Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (the Spanish Civil War novel that’s my favorite Hemingway work), and Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (a stunning debut for an author in her early 20s).

Among the excellent novels published in 1930? William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

My two 1920-released favorites from a century ago are Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (the first novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer) and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (that author’s sixth novel but his first bestseller).

Of novels published in 1910, I particularly like Colette’s The Vagabond. And, for 1900, there’s Colette’s Claudine at School, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The 19th century was graced with Emile Zola’s The Beast in Man, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four (all released in 1890); Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Henry James’ Washington Square, and Zola’s Nana (1880); Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870); George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860); Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s White-Jacket, and Alexandre Dumas’ The Black Tulip (1850); and Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pathfinder (1840).

I think I’ll stop there.

Your favorite novels published in a year ending with zero? (Not zero sales for those authors. 🙂 )

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about an imaginary run for mayor of my town — is here.

It’s a Fact That Rush’s Lyricist Loved Fiction

Neil PeartBack in 2014, I wrote a blog post about songs with literary references — mentioning tunes such as Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” (which contained lines about The Lord of the Rings), Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (The Grapes of Wrath), Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), 10,000 Maniacs’ “Hey Jack Kerouac,” Rosanne Cash’s “The Summer I Read Colette,” etc.

Today, after the death last month of Rush’s great drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, I’d like to focus on some of the lit-influenced songs he wrote for that renowned Canadian band. Few rock groups referenced fictional works more than Rush did, and the main reason is that Peart was a voracious reader — as well as an author of seven books himself. “The Professor,” as he was called, even worked with science-fiction author Kevin J. Anderson on a novelization of Rush’s last album, Clockwork Angels (2012), a “concept” record that was astoundingly good for a rock band that had been together 38 years at that point. For many bands, the creative well has long run dry after several decades (“ahem,” I’m talking about you, The Rolling Stones…).

Clockwork Angels‘ final track — the gorgeous, heartbreaking “The Garden” — includes the phrase “infinite jest” from the title of the David Foster Wallace novel, from the phrase in Hamlet, or both.

Hamlet is also represented with “to sleep, perchance to dream” being among the subtitles of Rush’s colossal instrumental “La Villa Strangiato.”

And Peart references Shakespeare’s iconic “all the world’s a stage” line from As You Like It in one of Rush’s most famous songs: “Limelight,” about how an introvert (Peart) reacts to being a celebrity.

Just as famous, if not more so, is Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” — about a modern version of Mark Twain’s renowned character.

Sharing Side One with “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight” on Rush’s classic 1981 Moving Pictures album is “Red Barchetta,” a car-related song inspired by Richard S. Foster’s short story “A Nice Morning Drive.”

With “the bell tolls for thee” line in “Losing It,” Peart referenced Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls — whose title came from a John Donne poem. And the title of Rush’s Grace Under Pressure album pays homage to the famous Hemingway quote.

Peart was influenced for a time in his younger years by Ayn Rand, which led to a Rush song (“Anthem”) named after a Rand novella. “The Professor” eventually left that philosophy behind; Peart and his two bandmates (vocalist/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, both of whom co-wrote the music that accompanied Peart’s lyrics) all turned out to be rather liberal, compassionate people — whereas the “selfishness is good” Rand is lionized by some nasty figures on America’s far right.

Though there are various other lit-influenced Rush songs, I’ll conclude with just one more: “Xanadu,” which I also mentioned in a post last month. That epic tune was inspired by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “Kubla Khan.”

Your favorite songs with literary references, whether by Rush or anyone else?

I realize I’m posting this piece during the Super Bowl, but…I…don’t…care. 🙂 (I hate the violence of football, the NFL’s ultra-conservative owners, etc.) Also, my next blog post will appear on a Monday (February 10) rather than the usual Sunday (February 9).

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about an interim schools superintendent’s controversial remark on race — is here.

Opposites Attract Some Authors

Willa CatherBack in 2013, when I was writing about literature for The Huffington Post, I did a piece about female-written novels that star male characters and male-written novels that star female characters. I’d like to expand on that today by discussing novels with other author/character dichotomies: those by writers who create protagonists of another race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

The question remains: Can novelists write well about people who differ from them in a significant way? The answer is yes, of course. Not always as well as authors who are what their characters are, and there’s some risk of stereotyping and “cultural appropriation,” but writers who are not what their characters are can use their imagination, do research, channel their personal knowledge of people they know who are unlike them, and so on. (Heck, human emotions are human emotions.) Plus novelists can also include characters who are in the author’s “group.” Still, writers who’ve “lived” what they write can understandably have an edge — and more of a “right” to the subject matter.

I thought about all this while reading Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover, which I also mentioned in last week’s post. Allende is of Chilean descent, and most of her novels prominently feature Latina characters. But this particular book primarily focuses on Americans of Japanese and Eastern European ancestry.

The sort-of flip side of that is John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. Steinbeck was white, and that novel (his first major success) includes a number of Mexican-American characters.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by the white Harriet Beecher Stowe includes several crucial African-American characters — such as the titular Tom as well as Eliza and George Harris.

Among the works of African-American writer James Baldwin is Giovanni’s Room, which focuses on white characters. But there’s also an authorial similarity: the novel has a gay theme, and Baldwin was gay.

Willa Cather was also gay, even as the relationships in those Cather novels that contained marital/romantic elements were heterosexual — as was the case with My Antonia. But there’s gay subtext in some of her books if a reader looks closely enough; for instance, the Jim Burden character enamored with Antonia could be a reversed-gender stand-in for Cather. (Pictured atop this blog post is a seated Cather with her domestic partner Edith Lewis.)

As mentioned earlier, some authors kind of split the difference. African-American novelist Octavia Butler’s Kindred, by way of example, stars a 20th-century black woman (Dana) who’s married to a white man (Kevin) when the involuntary time-traveling to the Antebellum South begins.

And the part-black Alexandre Dumas focused on white characters in virtually all his novels — including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers — but changed things up with Georges and its black protagonist.

Getting back to ethnicity, there’s J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert — a novel by a white French author starring the Moroccan woman Lalla.

Some religious crossovers? George Eliot, a Christian, included three major Jewish characters in Daniel Deronda while also featuring several prominent Christian characters. The short historical novel Hadji Murat by sort-of-Christian Leo Tolstoy stars the 19th-century Muslim leader of the book’s title. And White Teeth by British author Zadie Smith, who has described herself as not very religious, co-stars the fairly devout character of Samad.

We can widen this discussion even further with disabled authors writing about not-disabled characters and vice versa. For instance, Daniel Keyes created special-needs protagonist Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, and Lisa Genova has penned Still Alice and several other novels starring characters faced with devastating neurological challenges.

Novels you’ve read that fit this topic?

The great Vancouver-based podcaster Rebecca Budd (aka “Clanmother”), who often comments here, interviewed me again about books. She asked how I get ideas for this blog, how people choose which books to read, how to find time to read, whether to finish a book one doesn’t like, the state of reading in this era of digital devices and shorter attention spans, etc. All in less than 15 minutes! 🙂 (One of my podcast answers includes praise of this blog’s commenters. 🙂 )

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about topics such as another broken developer promise — is here.

No Pride in Prejudice

PrejudiceFor a country that’s supposedly a great democracy, the United States has a breathtaking amount of virulent prejudice in its past and present — making the country a great democracy mostly for (rich) white males.

This comes up often in U.S.-set novels — as it should, given that lots of fiction reflects real life.

As I post this just hours before the holiday celebrating the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I’ll first mention that I most recently came across a prejudicial U.S. in Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover. Part of that novel shows the grim reality of Japanese-Americans relocated to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor amid bogus hysteria about their supposed disloyalty to the U.S. — even as many of those rounded up had lived for years, and/or were born, in the States. An awful chapter in the otherwise fairly liberal FDR presidency, which didn’t intern German-Americans or Italian-Americans despite the U.S. also being at war with Germany and Italy. Because those citizens were white, of course.

Obviously, one of the original sins of U.S. prejudice, before and after the Revolutionary War, was the abysmal treatment of Native-Americans. Many novels have addressed that — with just two of them including Diane Glancy’s Pushing the Bear (which takes place during the late-1830s forced removal of the Cherokee from their land) and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (about white marauders slaughtering Native-Americans, among others, about a decade later).

The other original sin was the ghastly system of slavery, which lasted from 1619 (when Africans were first yanked over to the U.S.) until America’s 1861-started Civil War. The many novels addressing that — as well as racism in general, past and present — include Alex Haley’s Roots (partly about the author’s own enslaved ancestors), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which depicted miserable plantation life as well as the possibilities of escape to the North and Canada), Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books, etc., etc.

Of course, people of Hispanic descent have also faced discrimination in the U.S. Another Isabel Allende novel — Daughter of Fortune — has Latina and Latino characters (along with every other person of color) the target of harsh bias from whites in Gold Rush-era California. Low-income protagonist Connie Ramos in Marge Piercy’s sci-fi-ish novel Woman on the Edge of Time is also treated badly by white characters who stereotype her.

Then there’s bias against women, whether of color or white (think Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth); bias against LGBTQ people, whether of color or white (think Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle); bias against Jewish people (think Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement); and bias against impoverished whites (think John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath).

Trump’s motto is “Make America Great Again.” Great for whom? Most of us know the answer to that.

Some novels you’d like to name that include depictions of prejudice in the U.S.?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a vicious campaign to oust a Board of Education member — is here.

Odd Couples, Odd Trios, Odd…

Kate QuinnMany novels of course contain character groupings — family members, or friends, or work partners, or other associations. Interesting interactions often result, and things can get even more interesting when the people are very different from each other.

That came to mind last week while reading Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network. Her gripping historical novel — which has parallel World War I and post-World War II story lines that eventually merge in memorable fashion — features the coming together of three characters who at first couldn’t seem more different: bitter, foul-mouthed British/French WWI spy Eve Gardiner, pregnant-American-college-student-in-Europe Charlie St. Clair, and Scottish WWII veteran/ex-convict Finn Kilgore. They not only appear to have few personality traits in common, but Eve treats Charlie worse than dismissively. But eventually the relationships take a turn, and we also find out that Eve and Charlie share something/someone awful in their pasts despite their 35-year age gap. Can that something/someone be exorcised?

Yes, characters who are very different can often (not always) have unexpected similarities that enable them to surprisingly get along. Or maybe that’s not so unexpected and surprising — heck, we’re all human, many of us suffer, and we all want some happiness. Still, when thrust-together disparate characters don’t get along, there’s a huge potential for riveting drama and fireworks: fights, insults, simmering hatred, etc. All of which is frequently more compelling than when people do get along.

Kate Quinn also created an odd grouping in her subsequent, even better novel, The Huntress. Those joining to hunt a Nazi woman (Annaliese) guilty of many murders include Russian aviator Nina, British ex-journalist Ian, American WWII vet Tony, and a Boston-based photographer (Jordan) suspicious of her stepmother: the aforementioned Annaliese, who hid her Nazi identity when fleeing to the U.S. and marrying Jordan’s father. Eve Gardiner even has a cameo!

In Toni Morrison’s Sula, the title character is outgoing, independent, and unconventional, while the novel’s co-star Nel is a quieter, more traditional sort. They are childhood friends despite those differences, but eventually grow far apart — for reasons such as a tragedy they jointly witnessed as kids, and, when they’re adults, Sula gravely betraying Nel.

Then there are the brothers Udayan and Subhash in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. The former is a revolutionary, the latter is content to live a lower-key life pursuing his education. Subhash is also more responsible, eventually marrying Udayan’s pregnant wife Gauri after Udayan is murdered by paramilitary police. Subhash and Gauri end up being a major mismatch as well.

Very different types are frequently placed together in the military (think Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny), the workplace (think Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight), the classroom (think L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables), and shared apartments (think Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman). Of course there’s also Neil Simon’s iconic play The Odd Couple, about two complete opposites (neurotic neat-freak Felix Unger and fun-loving slob Oscar Madison) sharing a rental after their respective marriages fall apart.

Disparate groups can also involve different species, especially when one gets into the sci-fi or fantasy realm. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his subsequent trilogy The Lord of the Rings feature hobbits, humans, wizards, dwarves, and elves on epic quests. That cross-cultural collaboration creates a good deal of tension, though the characters basically get along enough to do what they need to do.

In the animal world, there are the two dogs and one cat who together try to find their way home through 300 miles of Canadian wilderness in Sheila Branford’s The Incredible Journey. Of course, it’s not unheard of for canines and felines to get along. 🙂

Novels and characters you’d like to mention that/who fit this theme?

Speaking of trios, there was the three-person rock band Rush — whose drummer Neil Peart unfortunately died January 7 at the age of 67. He was widely considered the best rock drummer in history (I agree) and was also an exceptional lyricist — as well as a book author and voracious reader. Some Rush songs contained literary references; one of them was “Xanadu,” inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” poem. Here’s that tune featuring Peart, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee — all virtuosos on their instruments. I got interested in Rush about five years ago at the urging of former frequent commenter here “Ana,” and then backtracked to listen to the band’s work from the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s. “Xanadu” is from 1977, when Rush tended to do longer tracks.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.