When the Digital Age Invades Old Novels

Haim swiping

The plots of novels written before the digital age might have been quite different if smartphones, texting, websites, blogs, social media, etc., existed many decades or centuries ago. Let’s examine this, shall we?

After a thwarted engagement, made-for-each-other Anne Elliot and Capt. Wentworth have no contact for seven long years in Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817). If only they had known each other’s cell numbers in order to text. (Messaging rates may have applied.)

Edmond Dantes was framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and jailed in the miserable Chateau d’If island prison in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1844). If Edmond had been able to email the media from a dungeon computer…

Jane Eyre of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel knows something fishy is going on in the Thornfield Hall attic. She could’ve learned the true story sooner if she had had a “nanny cam.”

The person who murdered two women in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) is not known to the authorities for a long time. But what if Raskolnikov, during a late-night bout of self-confessional depression, posted about his guilt on Facebook?

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871), there are two problematic marriages: that of Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon, and Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. If TMZ.com reported on those unfortunate unions, maybe the couples would’ve soon divorced from embarrassment.

Claude Lantier was a frustrated artist in Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece (1886). He might have felt better if he posted his paintings on Instagram.

Things would have been better for Edna Pontellier if she made a TikTok video rather than doing what she did (I’m avoiding a spoiler here) at the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899).

In Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), the title character has a hard time becoming a published writer. It would have helped to gain some exposure by starting a blog.

In W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), the foolishly enamored Philip Carey is stuck in an atrocious relationship with the unkind Mildred that goes on and on. If Philip had access to online dating apps, chances are he would’ve met someone more compatible many chapters earlier.

The trial in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was dramatic enough. Picture it trending on Twitter, with retweets galore!

Things would have been a lot less crazy in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) if a different piece of wardrobe furniture had been purchased on Craigslist.

Books burned in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451? Replace ’em with an Amazon order…

Sal Paradise and other characters drive all over the place in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). A good GPS might have kept them in Jersey or something.

Any scenarios you’d like to create by placing modern technology in old novels?

Here’s a 2020 song called “I Know Alone” by the three-sister band Haim. Why is it relevant to this blog post? Well, in the quirky dance the siblings do in this video, one of their moves is swiping on the screens of imaginary smartphones. 🙂 An image taken from the video is atop this blog post.

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. My latest piece — about a misleading anti-rent-control campaign and more — is here.

Protests in Fiction Show Societal Friction

Invisible ManThere have been countless protests around the world in recent weeks against the evils of racism and police brutality. Many of the admirable participants have been young people of all colors, providing hope for a future where…Black Lives Matter.

Protests also happen in books — often nonfiction ones, but novels, too. Think about it enough, and a person can remember rallies, marches, strikes, and other actions in a number of novels — along with nasty pushback by cops, the military, politicians, and the owner class.

In American literature, memorable protest actions include the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man rousing a crowd to confront cops evicting an elderly black couple in New York City. Later, that narrator speaks at rallies on behalf of the “Brotherhood” group. And further on in the 1952 novel, riots break out in Harlem over grievances African-Americans face in the U.S. — grievances that in many cases haven’t gone away nearly seven decades later.

There’s also William Styron’s historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, about the man who led the real-life 1831 rebellion against the moral travesty of American slavery.

Moving to another country, the French mining strike that’s the centerpiece of Germinal helps make Emile Zola’s novel as dramatic — and heartbreaking — as can be.

Also heartbreaking is the Colombian army’s mass-murder of striking workers in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The horrific event, like the real-life “Banana Massacre” of 1928 it was based on, was virtually wiped out of the history books. Also the case with a white mob’s slightly earlier 1921 massacre of African-American residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street” neighborhood.

Then there’s the fruit workers’ strike in In Dubious Battle, one of the few John Steinbeck novels I haven’t read (yet). And an Oregon loggers’ strike plays a prominent role in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion.

In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, one secondary character (Joshua Chalfens) becomes an animal-rights activist.

Protesters are not always admirable. For instance, doomed revolutionary Udayan Mitra of India is not the nicest or most responsible guy in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, though he’s certainly brave like most people who oppose “the powers that be.” Another part-problematic guy is Sonny, a courageous anti-apartheid activist who cheats on his wife in My Son’s Story by Nadine Gordimer. Sonny’s more-principled family also joins the fight against the oppressive white South African regime.

I’m now on the eighth of Diana Gabaldon’s eight Outlander novels as my pandemic reading marathon continues (most of the books are over 1,000 pages). The 1770s section of the series partly focuses on one of history’s ultimate protests: the thirteen colonies’ successful uprising against monarchical British rule that was commemorated yesterday, July 4th. Of course, the resulting United States became a democracy mainly for monied white males while African-Americans and Native-Americans were treated horribly and women had few rights…

Novels you’d like to mention that include protesters and protest scenes?

Here’s “March March,” a new song by The Chicks — formerly The Dixie Chicks.

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 new Township Council sworn in after an election that saw many votes not counted — is here.

Authors Affecting Authors

Austen - BurneyAll authors are influenced by other authors, whether that influence is conscious or unconscious. Most writers are not plagiarists, of course, but their reading of other writers has an impact — often manifested in their early work before developing a more original voice.

One of the most famous quotes about authorial influence was Dostoyevsky supposedly saying, “We all come out from Gogol’s Overcoat.” Fyodor was referring to Nikolai Gogol’s nightmarishly great 1842 short story “The Overcoat,” which had an effect on some of the legendary 19th-century Russian authors whose prime writing days would follow. A group that of course included Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekhov.

Gogol (1809-1852) was a contemporary — albeit a geographically distant one — of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), who was also a major influence on a number of later writers. Poe managed to do this in at least three genres, being a horror-story pioneer who helped inspire the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and others; a detective-story pioneer (with tales such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”) who influenced subsequent sleuth writing by Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone), Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), etc.; and a producer of sea fiction (including The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket) that helped inspire Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Staying with 19th-century influencers for a while, Mary Shelley, then Jules Verne, and then H.G. Wells were science-fiction trailblazers who paved the way for Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Octavia E. Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others in the 20th century.

Charles Dickens’ funny, sprawling, socially conscious novels have some ancestral elements to what we see in John Irving’s books.

One 19th-century author influencing another was Honore de Balzac, whose realism and the placing of the same characters in different novels helped inspire Emile Zola.

Going back further in time, 18th-century novelist Fanny Burney was a favorite of Jane Austen, who even found her Pride and Prejudice title in a sentence from Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia. (Austen is pictured with that book atop this blog post.)

Moving to more recent authors, a young Toni Morrison was an avid reader of Austen and Tolstoy — and it shows in her work, along with influences from such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez (magic realism), Zora Neale Hurston (rural/folklore elements), and James Baldwin (a finely tuned radar on racism).

Hurston was also one of the influences on Alice Walker, who found what was believed to be Hurston’s unmarked Florida grave in 1973 and then wrote an influential 1975 Ms. magazine article about Zora that helped revive Hurston’s unfairly faded reputation.

Again mentioning Marquez, his One Hundred Years of Solitude was clearly a partial template for Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Both are multigenerational sagas with plenty of magic realism and political awareness.

A keen political/feminist sensibility, while almost never getting preachy, makes the 1955-born Barbara Kingsolver somewhat a literary descendant of the 1939-born Margaret Atwood.

Atwood’s canon of course includes several dystopian/speculative-fiction novels, which reminds me that George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four was obviously influenced by Aldous Huxley’s earlier Brave New World — if only to take a different approach to the future in having a society controlled by terror rather than through “pleasurable” distraction. Heck, Huxley was even briefly one of Orwell’s teachers at Eton.

Back in the USA, there’s a direct line of dark antiwar humor running from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

America’s Southern Gothic genre also has its connections. Cormac McCarthy, with his rich prose and unsettling situations, is a literary heir to William Faulkner. In the more humorous Southern Gothic realm, Erskine Caldwell kind of led to Charles Portis.

Ernest Hemingway’s terse prose influenced numerous writers — with one of my current favorites being Lee Child of Jack Reacher series renown.

And when it comes to modernist, often-nonlinear fiction, contemporaries James Joyce and Virginia Woolf (both with 1882-1941 life spans) had some major literary similarities.

I realize I’ve just scratched the surface here. Any authors influencing other authors you’d like to discuss — including ones I mentioned or didn’t?

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 high school graduating class that went through a lot — is here.

A Few Favorite Fathers in Fiction

Silas MarnerToday is Father’s Day, so, in an effort to write a blog post with the most unoriginal theme ever, I’m going to discuss some of my favorite dads in literature — seven to be exact. I’ll go backward in time, starting with the most recent releases.

Subhash Mitra of Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2013 novel The Lowland marries Gauri, the pregnant wife of his revolutionary brother Udayan after the charismatic-but-irresponsible Udayan is killed. The uncharismatic Subhash becomes a devoted father to Bela even as Gauri turns out to be a distracted mother who eventually abandons the family.

Arthur Weasley of the Harry Potter series is fun, brave, and a bit spacey. That last quality is not surprising given how large the Weasley family is and how much he and other sympathetic characters in J.K. Rowling’s 1997-2007 books have to deal with the havoc-wreaking Lord Voldemort.

A secondary character in Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 post-apocalyptic novel Parable of the Sower is the wise and kind (but prone to wishful thinking) minister/professor father of protagonist Lauren Olamina, who calls him “the best man I know.” Enough said.

There’s of course Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). The widowed dad of Scout and her brother Jem is warm to his children, disciplines them some but not too much, and is of course a highly principled attorney who defends an innocent African-American man. The white Atticus doesn’t comes off as well in the early TKAM draft Go Set a Watchman, but…

Adoptive father Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables (1908) is shy, quiet, and far from confident, but is a gentle, kind farmer who develops a wonderful relationship with the precocious Anne.

Then there’s Silas Marner (pictured at the top of this blog post). He’s a bitter, lonely miser in the first part of George Eliot’s 1861 novel, so I didn’t see his heartwarming adoption of Eppie coming — and how effective (albeit somewhat bumbling) his parenting would be.

Finally, I’ll mention Bob Cratchit of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). Cratchit lives a difficult life as Ebenezer Scrooge’s underpaid/overworked clerk, but has a positive outlook on life and is a devoted dad to his six children — including the physically challenged Tiny Tim.

Your favorite fathers in literature?

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 has a dual election theme — is here.

When Novelists Display Intolerance

Cormoran and Robin

J.K. Rowling is one of my favorite living authors. Her Harry Potter series is amazing, of course, but I also like her downbeat The Casual Vacancy novel and love her compelling crime series (written under the Robert Galbraith pen name) starring the pictured-above private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.

So it was especially disappointing to learn that the mostly liberal, very philanthropic Rowling — almost always tolerant and humanistic in her novels — seemingly has some backward views about transgender people. Here’s a story from two days ago:

That once again brings up the subject — which I’ve covered before — of reading authors we might disagree with on some very important issues. Do we want to spend time with writers who have views that are racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and/or whatever?

It’s a good question, partly answered by the fact that some authors with backward views keep those views out of their novels while other authors intentionally or subconsciously include those views in their fiction. Also, whether or not one keeps reading those writers can depend on how much you like their work. And of course there are few authors out there whose opinions any particular reader will 100% share. (I did reach that 100% threshold when proofreading my own two books before they were published. 🙂 )

Anyway, if I like a novelist’s work enough, I’ll keep reading them even if one or some of their views bother me. For instance, Rowling’s fifth Cormoran/Robin crime novel — Troubled Blood — is due out this September and I eagerly plan to read it. But I’ll feel some guilt doing so that I never felt before when enjoying Rowling’s superb writing.

I made a different decision with Orson Scott Card. I read one of his novels, which I liked but didn’t love, before learning that he was virulently/publicly anti-gay. Even though there was little indication of that in Lost Boys, I figured why bother reading more of Card’s books — there are countless other authors out there to try.

I reached a similar conclusion regarding the sexist Norman Mailer and John Updike — I just didn’t like their work enough to keep reading them after one book apiece. Ernest Hemingway’s sexism is also off-putting, though my feelings are mixed enough about him and his novels that I’ve read three of them.

Authors such as Jack London and H.P. Lovecraft are well-known for their racism (quite a lot of it in their personal views and some in their fiction), but I like their novels and stories enough to have read many of them despite my dismay over their bigotry.

I’ve also kept reading iconic 19th-century novelists such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott despite some anti-Semitism in their work. It helps a bit to remember that they were “of their time” — anti-Semitism was pretty blatant in the 1800s, though the great George Eliot broke that mold with the memorable Jewish characters in her fabulous Daniel Deronda. It also helps that Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Scott were masterful novelists whose anti-Semitic moments in their writing were nowhere near constant. With Dostoyevsky, it was basically some occasional asides in his novels. With Dickens, it was mostly the Fagin character in Oliver Twist, which the author later revised to make less objectionable. And Scott’s painfully stereotypical depiction of the money-lender Isaac in Ivanhoe was counterbalanced by the sympathetic, three-dimensional depiction of Isaac’s daughter Rebecca.

The “of their time” factor is of course also in the debate mix when seeing racism, sexism, and homophobia in older novels. Also, we should always think about whether authors are bigoted people themselves or are not-bigoted people periodically depicting bigotry in their fiction.

Finally, I have a little more tolerance for intolerance from novelists than from politicians, who have such direct lawmaking control over our lives. If those pols are very intolerant people, they won’t get my vote.

How do you feel about authors who espouse prejudiced views in real life and/or in their novels? Do you continue to read them or not?

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 two huge Black Lives Matter rallies/marches in my town — is here.

Racist Characters Bring the Hate to Some Literature

Go Tell It

During a time when the media is full of news about America’s two most infamous racists — the depraved Donald Trump and Derek Chauvin (the hateful white cop who murdered black Minneapolis resident George Floyd) — I’m depressingly reminded of virulent racists in literature.

Some of those repugnant characters are in great novels, making those books both must-reads and exceedingly painful reads. But also at times inspiring reads as that racism might be opposed or avenged, individually and collectively.

Among fiction’s awful racists? We have the white New York City cops who arrest Richard, the brainy African-American father of protagonist John Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, for a crime he did not commit. Richard is beaten and jailed, and eventually commits suicide in despair — before John is born.

Another vicious white-supremacist cop is Norman Daniels, who raped a black woman in the backstory of Stephen King’s novel Rose Madder.

There are of course plenty of racist white characters who aren’t cops. One of them is Bob Ewell, who falsely accuses a black man — Tom Robinson — of raping his daughter Mayella in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Disastrous consequences follow.

Then there’s the racist white mob that kills Sam (a black man) because he and Katherine (a white woman) fall in love in Louis Sachar’s Holes.

Going back to 19th-century literature, we have the racist Henri in Georges — the only novel the partly black French author Alexandre Dumas wrote that focuses on characters of color.

There are plenty of cruel white slaveowners in fiction, too. Among the better-known ones are Rufus Weylin of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Simon Legree of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Tom Lea of Alex Haley’s Roots.

All of the above characters are overtly racist. There are of course countless other white people in literature more subtly racist — some of them quite wealthy, like Trump allegedly is.

Any fictional racist characters 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about the police murder of George Floyd and various news that’s local to my town — is here.

Author Clips on YouTube! (The Sequel)

BuchiLast week’s post featuring author videos received a nice response, so I thought I’d do a second column spotlighting some other authors. As before, I made sure all the clips were short — and again started with living writers and concluded with deceased ones.

Fannie Flagg, whose warmly compelling novels include Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, discusses topics such as how she got her pen name:

Rita Mae Brown, who first rose to literary fame with her great lesbian-themed classic Rubyfruit Jungle, talks about her mystery series co-starring human and animal detectives:

Terry McMillan focuses on how she writes her novels (Waiting to Exhale, etc.) and the unhealthiness of staying angry:

Khaled Hosseini, author of books such as The Kite Runner, recalls his transition from physician to novelist and discusses how refugees make the U.S. a better place. Hosseini himself was a refugee, from Afghanistan:

Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize-winning writer of novels such as The Remains of the Day, talks about how restrictive it is for authors to be pigeon-holed by genre:

Walter Mosley — author of the Easy Rawlins mysteries and more — discusses reading as a kid, classic writers, and the often solitary/unglamorous life of authors:

Moving on to authors who are no longer with us…

Brief footage of Harper Lee, before she became very reclusive, at the 1962 premiere of the great movie based on her even greater novel To Kill a Mockingbird:

Iconic science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (Kindred, The Parable of the Sower, etc.) discusses how watching a bad movie inspired her to start writing, how the future is not always easily predictable, and more:

W. Somerset Maugham, who penned Of Human Bondage and other classics, answers several questions during a 1950 shipboard interview — including one about the impossibility of writing “the perfect novel”:

Ray Bradbury is quite engaging as he references The Martian Chronicles and more. He even reads a poem! (Thanks to Brian Bess for alerting me to this clip.)

Sue Grafton, author of the “Alphabet Mysteries” series, hilariously riffs about murderous thoughts:

Nigerian-born author Buchi Emecheta discusses living in England, her novel Second Class Citizen, and juggling parenthood and writing. (She’s in the screen shot atop this blog post, on the left.)

H.G. Wells — one of the most famous sci-fi authors to put words to paper (The Time Machine, etc.), discusses economics in his distinctive high-pitched voice:

Brief footage of Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak:

Any author videos 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — a comedic look at what families might do during a pandemic summer with many pools and camps closed — is here.

Author Clips on YouTube!

WoukAvid fiction readers aren’t seeing any authors live during the pandemic, but we can watch clips of them on YouTube. Here are some short videos, with the first group featuring some great living writers followed by several clips showing famous novelists who are no longer with us. Most speak as skillfully as they write, though you can’t tell in the silent, pre-1910 footage of Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy that ends this post.

(Above is a screen shot I took from a 2017 interview given by the then-102-year-old Herman Wouk of The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance fame. Video can be seen a few paragraphs down.)

This first video stars the fabulous author Liane Moriarty discussing her 2018 Nine Perfect Strangers book, the mega-success of her 2014 Big Little Lies novel that spawned a hit TV series, etc.

Alice Walker (The Color Purple) eloquently talks about Zora Neale Hurston and Hurston’s writing — the most famous example being the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Isabel Allende on how her debut-novel masterpiece The House of the Spirits happened, the number of hours a day she spends writing, and more.

Zadie Smith, known for vivid/often-hilarious multicultural novels such as White Teeth, speaks about why there aren’t more published authors with working-class backgrounds.

Margaret Atwood (author of the iconic The Handmaid’s Tale and many other works) discusses feminism in this frequently funny 1997 clip.

Lee Child, author of the riveting Jack Reacher series, talks about why it’s good to wait until one is older to start writing novels.

Donna Tartt talks about her writing process, her sweeping Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch, and more.

Stephen King, interviewed by George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame, answers a question about how he’s able to write so much — and also mentions Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

Historical-fiction author Kate Quinn discusses The Huntress, about a woman who marries an American who doesn’t know about her Nazi-war-criminal past. Among Quinn’s other compelling novels is The Alice Network.

Moving to deceased writers, this video shows James Baldwin (Go Tell It On the Mountain, etc.) dissecting the hyper-difficult black experience in America.

The aforementioned 2017 interview Herman Wouk gave at the age of 102!

J.R.R. Tolkien on his iconic The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Lastly, film footage of Mark Twain a year before his death, alone and then with his daughters…

…and footage of Leo Tolstoy near the end of his life.

Author videos you’d recommend?

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 my town’s contested, unequally funded election — is here.

An Author Can Excel and Falter When Writing About Relationships

Jane Eyre VilletteWhen it comes to depicting relationships, great novelists are not machines. That means the relationships — whether good, bad, unrequited, potential, etc. — are sometimes believable and sometimes not as much.

I thought about this while continuing my pandemic-time reading of Diana Gabaldon’s compelling 9,073-page Outlander series (I’m now on the fifth of eight books). The relationship between 20th-century doctor Claire Fraser and 18th-century Scotsman Jamie Fraser totally works. Equal partners, both smart, both charismatic, superb chemistry, lots of passion, flowing dialogue, plausible occasional fights. But the relationship between Claire/Jamie’s daughter Brianna and historian/musician Roger periodically feels kind of forced and clunky, partly because Roger is a rather annoying guy at times.

Lightning also doesn’t strike twice in two Charlotte Bronte novels. The relationship between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre is one of literature’s great love stories, even though the characters are quite different in certain ways. But the interaction between Lucy Snowe and the partly unlikable M. Paul Emanuel doesn’t light many sparks in Bronte’s Villette.

The interaction between Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott — co-workers who are a possible future couple after four of J.K. Rowling’s crime novels — is satisfying for readers. The characters share a knack for private investigating, have a mutual respect, both have difficult pasts, and there’s that aforementioned “c” word: chemistry. On the other hand, the eventual love relationship between Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley of Rowling’s Harry Potter series seems off. Hermione and Ron are very good friends and both very nice people, but Hermione is just so much smarter than Ron to make for an equal couple.

In Isabel Allende’s 1840s-set Daughter of Fortune, Eliza Sommers and Joaquin Andieta become enamored with each other, and there’s an intense young-love passion to their affair even as the depiction of it doesn’t click on all cylinders. But the novel’s later relationship between Eliza and Tao Chi’en feels right, even if it’s more a friendship because of the strictures of the time against interracial relationships. (Eliza is of Chilean and English descent; Tao of Chinese ancestry.)

Depicting romance in his fiction wasn’t Mark Twain’s thing, but, when he did, the results were mixed. The puppy love of the young Tom and Becky in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer comes off as very plausible, while the relationship between Hank and Sandy in Twain’s scathingly hilarious A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court seems kind of cardboard and one-dimensional.

But the five terrific George Eliot novels I’ve read never disappoint in depicting romantic relationships with skill and psychological nuance — whether the relationships are happy, disastrous, or somewhere in between. For instance, Middlemarch masterfully dissects the depressing marriages of admirable Dorothea Brooke and sour Rev. Edward Casaubon, and idealistic Dr. Tertius Lydgate and shallow Rosamond Vincy; and Daniel Deronda includes the awful union of spoiled Gwendolen Harleth and sadistic Henleigh Grandcourt. Eliot also excels at happier relationships, such as those between Daniel Deronda and Mirah Lapidoth and, in Adam Bede, Adam and minister Dinah Morris.

Still, Eliot is rare in never faltering in the romantic-depiction realm. Heck, even a novelist as accomplished as Liane Moriarty in creating good and bad fictional relationships included the not-that-believable pairing of romance author Frances and oft-crude retired footballer Tony in her great novel Nine Perfect Strangers.

Any examples you’d like to offer of other novelists who did well and also not so well in depicting relationships?

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 my town’s unequally funded election — is here.

Bored Fictional Characters Are Acting Out in Closed Libraries

LibraryWith libraries shuttered during the pandemic, fictional characters in those book-filled buildings are bored enough to be doing some interesting things the public is not seeing. I’m going to give you some examples, based on reports I received from private investigators Kinsey Millhone (of Sue Grafton’s “alphabet mysteries”) and Easy Rawlins (of the Walter Mosley novels that often have a color in their titles). In return for the inside info from those sleuths, I purchased their co-authored thriller D Is For Devil in a Blue Dress.

Anyway, in my town’s closed-since-mid-March library (pictured above), Jane Eyre steps out from between the covers of Charlotte Bronte’s novel and discovers a “madwoman” roaming the building’s top floor. Turns out to be the Harry Potter witch Bellatrix Lestrange, who zaps gentle Beth March of Little Women with her wand. Middlemarch‘s Dr. Lydgate treats Beth via a Zoom “telehealth” appointment so they can maintain social distancing. Ove from Fredrik Backman’s novel likes the social-distancing thing.

Meanwhile, Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter receives remote instruction from a local university on a library computer, and changes to an outfit embroidered with a “B” after not quite acing a test. Anna Karenina also has some difficulties when she throws herself under a toy train in the children’s-book section. But the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude are pleased, figuring a few months of pandemic aloneness in the fiction section is better than a century of it.

Then Alice returns to the library’s shelves from her adventures in Wonderland and is asked if she’s “Still Alice” by the Howland family of Lisa Genova’s Alzheimer’s-themed novel. Kate Quinn’s young-woman protagonist Charlie St. Clair films it all for The Alice Network.

Don Quixote tilts at a rotating fan in the library director’s office. Huck Finn and Jim put their raft in the water, but can’t get far atop the drinking fountain next to the men’s room. Captain Ahab searches every floor for Moby-Dick, aka “The Great White Whale,” but only finds a large bottle of “Wite-Out” behind the checkout desk. (Queequeg harpoons it.)

Speaking of the checkout desk, miserly fictional dad Felix Grandet refuses to pay a fine after returning Eugenie Grandet several weeks late. “Old Goriot is a better Balzac book,” he huffs.

Sully from Nobody’s Fool decides to put his handyman skills to work by tightening a loose display case, but Flora and Miles of The Turn of the Screw push him away. “Henry James trained us to do that,” they say.

Former stockbroker Charles Strickland leaves the pages of The Moon and Sixpence to show off his Gauguin-like artistic prowess, but ends up only painting the bannisters between library floors. The Poisonwood Bible missionary Nathan Price tries to convert those drying bannisters to Christianity. Death Comes for the Archbishop when he inhales paint fumes.

On a happier note, Proust’s characters from In Search of Lost Time successfully find that newsweekly in the library’s magazine racks.

Dorothy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz returns to the farm, only it’s a LEGO pasture in the aforementioned children’s section. Fortunately, she doesn’t join the cast of War and Peace — avoiding the need to repeatedly say “There’s no place like tome.”

As noted, fictional characters are feeling rather bored and unhappy with no people visiting the library. So when Lily Bart dubs the book-filled building The House of Mirth, she is shushed. Seems the ill-fated Lily can’t catch a break.

Would you like to add any scenarios of fictional characters acting out in empty libraries?

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 educational war of words connected with my town’s upcoming election — is here.