Romantic Rivalry Can Result in Riveting Reading

Romantic situations make many novels interesting, and complicated romantic situations can make them even more interesting.

Among those complications are when two people love the same person, one person has two suitors, the desired person tries to decide between the two, and so on. How long will the process take? How intense will things get? Are both suitors true contenders? Who, if either, will be chosen? Will the most compatible match happen? How will the “loser” react? What might the relationship be like after that? Etc.

I most recently encountered a version of this scenario in Ivan Turgenev’s A House of Gentlefolk, in which Panshin and Lavretsky both want the hand of Lisaveta. While Lavretsky is the better “candidate,” neither he nor Panshin are ideal. Panshin is handsome, confident, and somewhat talented, but quite shallow. The deeper Lavretsky has drawbacks such as being much older than Lisa (36 to 19) and being depressed after a disastrous marriage to a woman who’s now (supposedly) dead. Lisa, while ethical and intelligent, is a somewhat sheltered person and much more religious than either of her two suitors. All in all, things are not promising for a match made in heaven — or Russia. And then things get REALLY complicated…

Another relevant 19th-century novel is Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, in which the independent and initially idealistic Isabel Archer rejects Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood and instead marries Gilbert Osmond. Yes, three suitors, and Isabel’s choice proves to be disastrous.

Still another relevant novel based in the 19th century, but in this case written in the 20th century, is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Newland Archer is engaged to the conventional May Welland but becomes enamored with the unconventional Ellen Olenska. Archer’s ultimate choice is not disastrous, but his life ends up being pretty much a melancholy one. (The photo atop this blog post shows Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen, Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland, and Winona Ryder as May in 1993’s The Age of Innocence movie.)

In more recent fiction that sort of echoes what happens in Wharton’s novel, wedding band guitarist Dave is engaged to a fellow New Jersey resident (the rather boring Julie) he’s known since high school but then becomes smitten with a New York City resident (the arty but neurotic Gretchen) in Tom Perrotta’s The Wishbones.

Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe has Ruth Jamison marrying the abusive Frank Bennett, but Ruth and Idgie Threadgoode are the novel’s secret soulmates living in a difficult time and place for same-gender love to be out in the open.

Though it’s referenced completely in back story, Severus Snape is attracted to Lily, but she ends up marrying James in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Lily and James of course become the doomed parents of Harry.

In 18th-century fiction, the star of Fanny Burney’s Evelina finds herself the object of desire for the unsavory Sir Clement Willoughby and the admirable Lord Orville. Not much contest there.

A quirky version of the romantic-rivals situation is offered in Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, which has hubby number one still in the picture despite being dead. 🙂

Your favorite novels 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 The latest weekly piece — about my town’s shamed Planning Board and a Board of Education in turmoil — is here.

When Famous Novels Meet, or Don’t Meet, Expectations

In 2011, I wrote a blog post about whether famous novels I belatedly read after many years met the pent-up “great expectations” I brought to them. I covered books such as Beloved, Don Quixote, East of Eden, Ivanhoe, and The Age of Innocence.

I thought I’d revisit that theme by discussing some famous novels I finally got to since then. I’ll start with The Outsiders (which I finished last week) and also mention (alphabetically by title) A Confederacy of Dunces, Doctor Zhivago, Ethan Frome, Fahrenheit 451, Gorky Park, Of Human Bondage, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Rabbit, Run, Silas Marner, The Big Sleep, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Last of the Mohicans, The Portrait of a Lady, The Secret History, The Stranger, and Villette.

The Outsiders (1967) is a modern young-adult classic, so I figured it would be pretty good. But S.E. Hinton wrote it while still a teen (as she was in the above photo), so I figured it wouldn’t be THAT good. I was wrong. It’s very well written, features a number of compelling characters, and has lots to say about youth angst, friendship, dysfunctional families, peer pressure, class divisions, and more. I was impressed.

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces? A weird book, but funny as hell — with quirky, eccentric characters and lots of New Orleans ambience. Worth waiting for.

I found Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago sweeping, romantic, and sad. Didn’t totally love it, but liked it a lot.

Ethan Frome is different than some other Edith Wharton books in featuring non-rich characters in Massachusetts rather than wealthy ones in New York City. It’s a downbeat novella that packs a feverish, emotional wallop.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 deserves its reputation as one of the most memorable dystopian novels.

Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park is a thriller that delivers in all kinds of ways — tense plot, great protagonists, great villains, excellent Russian atmosphere. Plus it spawned seven sequels nearly as good.

Of Human Bondage was W. Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece — and that’s saying a lot, because he wrote a number of terrific novels. It mostly lives up to the hype, though one does wonder how protagonist Philip could stay in love for so long with a character as unlikable as Mildred.

One Hundred Years of Solitude? A tour de force by Gabriel Garcia Marquez that deserves its reputation as one of the 20th century’s best novels, though it’s sometimes a bit confusing to read.

John Updike’s writing in Rabbit, Run can’t be questioned, but I found the protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom to be grating and sexist enough to not really enjoy the novel as much as I would’ve liked.

George Eliot’s Silas Marner has a reputation in some quarters as a tedious read, but I found it wonderful and heartwarming. And so short for an Eliot novel that it’s a very good introduction to that fabulous author for people wanting to try her work.

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep? Lived up to its reputation for excellent, noirish, hardboiled crime fiction. And Humphrey Bogart was born to play private eye Philip Marlowe in the movie version.

Leo Tolstoy’s melancholy The Death of Ivan Ilyich is one of several examples of how that author rocked the novella in addition to lengthy books such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

The Last of the Mohicans is James Fenimore Cooper’s best-known novel, and it’s quite good, but I have to rate The Deerslayer (of the same “Leatherstocking” series) higher.

Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady doesn’t disappoint — a sublime, poignant work written before the author got a little too dense and wordy with some of his late classics.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is impressive for a debut novel, but it at times feels a bit too insular and contrived as it focuses on a small group of obsessive college students. I much prefer Tartt’s later The Goldfinch.

Albert Camus’ The Stranger is often mesmerizing, occasionally unsatisfying, and quite unusual.

Finally, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette has a number of riveting moments while also dragging in spots. The author’s earlier Jane Eyre is a much more compulsive read, and it probably didn’t help that Charlotte was depressed by the deaths of sisters Emily and Anne while writing Villette.

Your reactions to some famous novels when you finally got around to reading them? Did they meet, or not meet, your expectations?

Ray Bradbury mentioning Fahrenheit 451 on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life game show in 1956:

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 The latest weekly piece — a too-much-rain-inspired satire — is here.

Readers Are Lucky When They Find Characters Who Are Plucky

Today’s topic is plucky protagonists — characters who, despite difficulties, remain mostly resilient and optimistic and good-natured until they sometimes (not always) achieve success.

My inspiration for this piece was my 11-year-old daughter Maria and her softball teammates, who had been overwhelmed this spring — losing their first four games 16-8, 22-4, 20-2, and 16-6. This is Maria’s fourth year of rec softball (she was previously on third-to-fifth-grade squads that won quite a few games), but a number of her current teammates had little or no experience with the sport. Plus they’ve been mostly playing teams from towns with much stronger softball programs.

But Maria (shown speeding to third base yesterday in the above photo) and her fellow Wildcats were still having fun, trying hard, displaying a good attitude, and not blaming each other for fielding mistakes, striking out, and so on. They were doing the best they could, and sometimes made great plays and sometimes hit the ball hard.

Then came yesterday’s fifth game of the season, which…well, I’ll wait till the end of this blog post to give you the results.

Plucky fictional characters who come to mind include those in the two novels I most recently read.

One of the books is Mrs. Pollifax Pursued, which is among the 14 seriocomic Dorothy Gilman novels starring an older woman who does freelance spy work for the CIA. Mrs. Pollifax faces obstacles because of her age, gender, lack of spy training when younger, etc. But she’s very smart, congenial, cool under pressure, usually makes good decisions, and doesn’t let mistakes get her down too much.

The other book is Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which stars child of privilege Juan “Johnnie” Rico. He decides to enlist in a futuristic army, and fouls up several times during training and early missions, but generally maintains an excellent attitude and eventually meets with great success. A plucky guy.

Stephanie Plum of Janet Evanovich’s many mystery novels also finds it tough going at first as she tries to learn the ropes of bounty hunting. But she sticks to it with plenty of courage and humor.

Plucky characters are of course easy to root for, even in cases when they’re not doing totally admirable things. For instance, Heinlein’s sci-fi novel can be disturbingly militaristic.

And I should note that the term “plucky” can be seen as patronizing, but I think it’s a more positive word than that. For instance, the title character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is smart, stoic, independent, and more — but I would also praise her with the “plucky” adjective.

Penelope Keeling of Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers is plucky as well — going on with her life, with mostly an upbeat attitude, despite experiencing tragedy as a young woman and health issues in the novel’s present.

Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings deserves the “p” word, too, as does his traveling comrade Samwise Gamgee. That has something to do with their size — they’re both short-in-height hobbits — but has more to do with their bravery as they do their part to try to save Middle-earth amid friends and enemies who are usually bigger, stronger, and in some cases have special powers.

Size is also an element of pluckiness for Amy Dorrit, the titular character of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Plus she makes the best of a bad situation (her father is in debtors’ prison for a long time) — managing to earn crucial money and helping to keep the Dorrit family together.

Your favorite characters who fit this topic?

Oh, my daughter Maria’s team — in their fifth game yesterday — finally won for the first time this season, 14-11. One player hit a grand slam, and Maria got the save — coming in as a relief pitcher with the bases loaded and one out to throw out a runner at the plate and then strike out the final batter.

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 The latest weekly piece — about teachers without a new contract, a history-wrecking decision, and more — is here.

Characters With Special Powers

Reading literature can be a magical experience — sometimes literally.

Yes, some novels feature protagonists with powers beyond that of mere mortals. An obvious example includes the witches and wizards in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but many other fictional works and genres also include characters who do astounding things.

One such genre is magic realism. So we have someone like Clara in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits who’s clairvoyant and telekinetic, and Remedios in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude who eventually ascends into the sky…without boarding an airplane.

Which reminds me of how Margarita in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita flies with some help from the devil. Certainly, special powers can be used for good or for evil — or some combination of the two, because Margarita is a sympathetic character in Bulgakov’s book while the devil unsurprisingly isn’t.

Sci-fi is also well-represented when it comes to characters possessing unusual abilities, as with the “hyperempathetic” Lauren in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower who can literally feel the pain of others.

Which reminds me of Matty in Lois Lowry’s Messenger who can heal others without the least bit of medicine — albeit at some danger to himself. Indeed, having special powers can be a double-edged sword that might make readers feel uneasy about a character’s future in addition to reveling in the wish-fulfullment of seeing those powers in action.

We also have Johnny in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone who wakes up psychic after being in a coma.

Living for an incredibly long time is also kind of magical. The vampires and other characters in various Anne Rice novels, the more-than-2,000-year-old Lazarus Long in various Robert A. Heinlein sci-fi books, the 250-year-old High Lama in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, the nearly 300-year-old Cormac in Pete Hamill’s Forever, and so on.

And, getting back to wizards, we can’t forget the powers of Gandalf (pictured atop this blog post) in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Your favorite characters who 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 The latest weekly piece — about an ugly hotel and some election issues — is here.

Women Written as Wicked and Warped

The majority of novels I read are by women, and many of my favorite authors are female. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Colette, Willa Cather, L.M. Montgomery, Daphne du Maurier, Elsa Morante, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Isabel Allende, Octavia E. Butler, Barbara Kingsolver, Donna Tartt, J.K. Rowling, Liane Moriarty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, etc., etc.

So it is with some reluctance that I’m about to discuss female villains in fiction. One reason for this week’s choice of topic is recently reading a novel (The Shipping News) with a rather nasty woman in its cast. Also on my mind is U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is among the Trump administration cabinet members almost as awful as Trump himself — which is saying something.

(Heck, just a few of billionaire Betsy’s evil stances include trying to financially gut America’s public-education system, her support of guns in schools, her attempt to end government funding of the Special Olympics, her weakening of protections for victims of sexual assault, her weakening of protections for transgender students, her backing of for-profit colleges that have defrauded countless students, and so on.)

While I don’t have the numbers to prove it (if they even exist), there seem to be many more male villains than female villains in literature — not surprising given the personalities of too many men. For instance, E. Annie Proulx’s compelling Accordion Crimes — which I just read — focuses on the various players of that musical instrument over many decades, and many of them are brutish males.

But there are certainly enough female villains in various novels to do a blog post about them, so here goes…

Another Proulx novel — her appealingly quirky The Shipping News — has a secondary character (Petal) who’s as mean as can be. She resumes sleeping with many men a month after marrying the book’s awkward-but-well-meaning protagonist Quoyle (even doing that in the marital home while her husband is in the next room) and then ups the depravity by sneaking off with their two young daughters AND SELLING THEM. No wonder Quoyle leaves the U.S. for Newfoundland after Petal’s early-in-the-book death…

Another fictional woman from hell is Cathy Ames of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. She abandons the children she had with the hapless Adam Trask (though there’s some question of whether the father is Adam’s half-brother Charles) and gives Adam the good-bye present of shooting him. Cathy then becomes a prostitute before opening her own brothel known for sexual sadism. Too bad she lived too long ago to become a welcomed member of Trump’s cabinet.

There’s also the emotionally distant, self-centered, daughter-abandoning Gauri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland — though I should add right here that MANY more fathers than mothers abandon their children in fiction, and in real life.

Going back to 19th-century novels, we have Sarah Reed — the aunt of the title character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Sarah is abusive toward her orphaned niece when Jane comes to live in the Reed household, and she eventually ships Jane off to the hellish Lowood school after first falsely maligning her character to the despicable religious hypocrite of a director there (who’s a male — the wealthy Mr. Brocklehurst).

There’s also the criminal Lydia Gwilt in Wilkie Collins’ 1866 novel Armadale. But like a number of “villainesses” in literature, the brainy Lydia has some good in her. We’re left with the certainty that if life had given her some breaks, she would have become a much better person.

Returning to 20th-century literature, we have The Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (there might have been a movie version of that novel 🙂 ), the cruel/amoral social climber Undine Spragg in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, the tyrannically passive-aggressive Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the sadistic/psychotic/author-capturing Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery, the tries-to-wreck-the-lives-of-her-friends Zenia in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, the very problematic Cersei Lannister in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and its sequels, and the fake-sweet-on-the-outside-but-sadistic-to-the-core Dolores Umbridge (pictured atop this blog post) in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Who are some of your “favorite” malicious female characters 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 The latest weekly piece — about my town’s mixed record as an “arts destination” — is here.

Admiration for Novels With Isolation

One way fiction authors can create drama is to put characters who often don’t initially know each other in an isolated place.

I just read Michael Ondaatje’s eloquently written novel The English Patient, which does the isolation thing — and does it well. As World War II draws to a close, the emotionally exhausted nurse Hana is caring for the mysterious, badly burned title character in a remote Italian villa. Eventually she’s joined by her father’s old friend Caravaggio (a maimed, charismatic scoundrel) and the brilliant, methodical, decent bomb-disarmer Kip. Interesting, intense, and romantic scenarios ensue — with secrets revealed, a love affair between two of the characters, and a conclusion heavily influenced by Kip being the one person of color among the four.

Or how about Agatha Christie’s chillingly claustrophobic And Then There Were None? A group of guilty-but-never-convicted people are invited to an island and subsequently killed off one by one. It’s Christie’s most famous novel, the best-selling mystery ever, and one of the best-selling books of any genre (more than 100 million copies purchased).

Also (partly) set on an island — the rocky If, off the coast of Marseille — is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. When Edmond Dantes is falsely imprisoned there, he eventually meets fellow inmate Abbe Faria — with whom Dantes develops a deep bond. Faria restores Edmond’s will to live and changes Dantes’ whole future by telling him where to find treasure that will fund his transformation into The Count of Monte Cristo and also fund Dantes’ righteous revenge against the men who framed him. (The photo atop this blog post is of me last year next to Dumas’ tomb in the Paris-based Pantheon.)

There are also the luxury-ocean-liner passengers thrown together in Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure, which chronicles the capsizing of that big boat and the struggle for survival. Heck, any ship-set novel — such as Herman Melville’s Redburn, Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, etc., etc. — jams a crew together in one place, for better or (often) for worse.

Back on land, we have partygoers taken hostage in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, residents stuck in a quarantined city in Albert Camus’ The Plague, and three initial strangers (including a house-sitter) losing their sense of reality while living in a mansion not theirs in Morag Joss’ Half Broken Things.

Your favorite novels 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 The latest weekly piece — about part of my town’s high school being disastrously closed for repairs — is here.

Multitudes of Milieus

Many novels are mainly set in one or two locales, but some have three, four, or more.

Books that literally jump all over the place can be quite fascinating — offering lots of varied cultural immersion. But they can also feel scattered — and authors of such novels might have to do a lot of (too much?) time-consuming research and travel to get things right.

A plethora-of-places novel I recently read was Eduardo Halfon’s Mourning, a partly Holocaust-themed book that bounces (via present and past scenes) from Italy to Poland to Guatemala to the U.S. — all in just 157 pages. A well-written semi-autobiographical book, but rather dizzying to read.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner also goes country-hopping — from Afghanistan to Pakistan to the U.S. back to Pakistan and Afghanistan and the U.S.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s compelling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin opens in Kentucky before shifting to New Orleans (after Tom is sold to another slave owner) and rural Louisiana. Meanwhile, the book’s Eliza character escapes the South into Ohio, and eventually ends up in Canada with her husband George before they later go to France and then Liberia.

Of course, sea literature often features many places. For instance, Herman Wouk’s World War II novel The Caine Mutiny starts off in New York City, voyages to various parts of the world (including Okinawa), makes a mid-book stop in San Francisco, and then ends back in NYC.

Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket begins in…Nantucket…and later moves to the South Seas, the tip of South Africa, and then Antarctica near the South Pole.

Speaking of Antarctica, part of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette takes place on that frigid continent. There’s also plenty of time spent in Seattle — even as Bernadette’s “personal assistant” Manjula lives in India.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is mostly “limited” to one country (the U.S), but protagonist Sal really gets around. San Francisco, Denver, New York City, Virginia, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, Texas, Mexico City, etc. Road-trip novels can do that — with another example being Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, in which protagonist Jim Nashe drives back and forth across America for a year.

By no means a road-trip novel, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom does put its characters in places such as Minnesota, West Virginia, Virginia, New York City, and Washington, DC.

There’s also Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch — in which the settings include New York City, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam before protagonist Theo Decker travels all over the U.S.

Maybe the ultimate example of a saturated-with-settings novel is Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days — which moves from England to Egypt to India to Hong Kong to Japan to San Francisco to New York City and then back to London.

Finally, if you look at book series, the roaming Jack Reacher visits many places in Lee Child’s 23 novels. States such as California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia, as well as Washington, DC, and England, France, and Germany.

Of course, some novels and series with geographic gyrations have one character visit various places, while others might have different characters in different places.

Your favorite novels that fit this theme?

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 The latest weekly piece — about everything from local litigation to a lucrative liquor license — is here.