When Good Novels Are Good Enough

You absolutely love an author and then read a novel by her or him that’s good but not great. A problem? Not for me.

It’s unreasonable to expect a masterpiece every time — though some writers (George Eliot is one) have produced A+ novels many times in each of their careers. I’m just grateful that my favorite authors, dead or living, came up with multiple books I really liked even if I didn’t fall head over heels for every title. Heck, books that are good often have at least some great moments.

I thought about this while reading the last three novels I borrowed from the library. First up was Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, whose nine-year-old protagonist gets lost in the Maine woods. Trisha’s struggle for survival is at times gripping and at times tedious for the reader, with the less riveting portions partly caused by the fact that Trisha can talk to nobody but herself. The book is ultimately worth reading, but it doesn’t have the wallop of King novels such as Carrie, The Dead Zone, Misery, From a Buick 8, and a number of others.

Then came Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty — which has the author’s signature elements of all-too-human characters, deep insight into female friendships, many psychological nuances, lots of humor and pathos, and more. But the novel is more a B+ than an A+, and its focus on a fateful barbecue seems less consequential than the storylines in Moriarty works such as the masterful Big Little Lies and powerful The Husband’s Secret. Yet I’m glad I read Truly Madly Guilty. Heck, what happened at that barbecue¬†is¬†rather consequential.

The third novel was Zadie Smith’s The Auto-Graph Man, which has the author’s dead-on depictions of ethnic similarities and differences as well as many hilarious moments (I think Smith might be the funniest living author). But her novels On Beauty and especially White Teeth are far superior works.

Donna Tartt? I’d rank her tour de force The Goldfinch one of the very best novels of the 21st century. Memorable characters, a terrific plot concerning the painting that gives the book its title, well-handled settings ranging from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, and a completely satisfying conclusion. Tartt’s first two novels — The Secret History and The Little Friend — are quite good, but have flaws such as being too long for their subject matter and less-accomplished conclusions.

Among past authors, there are so many who offer readers immense enjoyment with novels that are not fantastic but are still plenty good. I’ll list some of those “lesser” works and then put a sampling of the authors’ masterpieces in parentheses.

There’s Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice); Alexandre Dumas’ Georges (The Count of Monte Cristo); Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (Jane Eyre); Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall); Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov); Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (Jude the Obscure); Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence); Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (My Antonia); John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden); Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (One Hundred Years of Solitude); Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (Kindred); and so on!

Some novels you like by favorite authors that are not those authors’ masterpieces?

My 2017 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 weekly piece — which discusses a battling Board of Education and a congressional candidate unfortunately disinvited from my town’s high school — is here.