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.

When Novels Have a Lot in Common

Reading literature can sometimes be a serendipitous experience. With no particular plan in mind — the novels I was interested in just happened to be available at my local library at the same time — I read two books back-to-back and found they featured many similarities amid their differences. Heck, even the authors have some things in common.

The novels? Big Little Lies (2014) and Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012). The authors? Liane Moriarty and Maria Semple. The similarities? First I’ll discuss a few commonalities in the writers’ lives, then I’ll dive deeper into the two books.

Moriarty is Australian and Semple is American, but they’re both in their early 50s. Semple now lives in Seattle, but is a California native associated with that state’s entertainment biz from her years as a TV producer and TV writer. Meanwhile, Moriarty’s Big Little Lies was turned into a TV miniseries that switched the book’s setting from Australia to…California.

On to the novels. Both feature a variety of affluent characters, with some not-affluent ones sprinkled in. Both have school settings (Big Little Lies more so). Both include a number of entitled parents. Both have some parents too involved in their kids’ lives. Both have several of those parents — usually the mothers — battling each other in various ways. Both novels, despite those battling moms, have good things to say against sexism. Both books, being published this decade, are full of tech references. Both address social issues in major or minor ways — for instance, domestic violence in Big Little Lies and homelessness in Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Both have mystery elements — a parent’s death in Big Little Lies and, well, where did the brilliant/beleaguered/damaged Bernadette go?

Yet there are of course some differences in the two novels’ content and approach. The riveting Big Little Lies contains a very nice amount of humor and satire, but seriousness is pretty prominent and many of the expertly drawn characters are as three-dimensional as can be. The lampoon-laced Where’d You Go, Bernadette is ultra-clever (sometimes too clever?) and absolutely hilarious, but the book didn’t feel as “deep” or as full of genuine emotion as Big Little Lies — until Semple’s novel showed a lot more heart in its second half.

I’d give the intricately constructed (emails, flashbacks, etc.!) Where’d You Go, Bernadette an A next to an A+ for Big Little Lies. I’ve so far read just two novels (also The Hypnotist’s Love Story) by Moriarty, and she’s astoundingly good — one of the very best contemporary authors.

Have you read Big Little Lies, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, or other novels by Moriarty and Semple? If so, what did you think? More generally, are there novels (perused consecutively or not, and by any authors — not just Moriarty and Semple) that struck you as having an unusual number of similarities?

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 looks at the death of a movie theater and threats to several stately old homes, is here.