Reader’s Choice 7/09
Picking a book to read, especially one you’re taking along on a vacation is a tricky proposition. (Who wants to lug around a 400-page disappointment?) Writing teachers often suggest that the writer must grab the reader’s attention in the first five pages. Yet I’ll take that a step farther and say that I often judge a book by the end of the first paragraph. Those first lines of a story have power. They can entertain, titillate or transport me, or just as likely confuse, annoy or bore me. The best authors of course are able to continue the compelling tone throughout.
A number of books come to mind where I was successfully hooked from page one. John Irving is a master of the breath-taking opening. Take, for example, the first sentence of his creative 1989 novel “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. The narrator begins, “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God”. The reader is warned. He is in for a wild ride here, as is usually the case with an Irving novel.
One of my favorite openings comes in Ann Tyler’s 1995 “Ladder of Years”. Her fictional tale of a woman’s mid-life crisis begins with a one-page local newspaper article that states, “Delaware state Police announced early today that Cordelia F. Grinstead, 40, wife of a Roland Park physician, has been reported missing while on holiday with her family in Bethany Beach. She was last seen around noon this past Monday, walking south along the stretch of sand between Bethany and Sea Colony”. It then states that her husband and teenage children, who were present at her disappearance, supplied the police with information: “They reported that to the best of their recollection she simply strolled away. Her failure to return was not remarked until late afternoon.” The family also, I might add, was not certain of her eye color.
Elinor Lipman has a way of hooking me in immediately if I’m in the market for a funny but smart read. The fast-paced opening sentences of her 2003 “The Pursuit of Alice Thrift” did the job. Alice begins: “You may have seen us in “Vows” in The New York Times . . . We didn’t have pretty faces or interesting demographics, but we had met and married in a manner that was right for SundayStyles: Ray Russo came to my department for a consultation. I said what I always said to a man seeking rhinoplasty: Your nose is noble, even majestic. It has character…Have you thought this through?”
Jane Hamilton has exhibited quite a range in her works, and the differences are obvious from page one. Her highly-acclaimed, dramatic “A Map of the World” (1994), set on a Mid-western dairy farm begins, “I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing”. The mood is set for a chilling, slow, dark tale. Yet she promises something completely different in her underrated 2000 family novel, “Disobedience”. It opens simply with the words, “Reading someone else’s e-mail is a quiet, clean enterprise”.
I still remember the first line of Susan Isaac’s “After All These Years” that I read when it first came out in 1993: “After nearly a quarter of a century of marriage, Richie Meyers, my husband, told me to call him Rick.” How could I not want to see what sleazy “Rick” was up to!
So, this month I’ve gathered some new books together and am holding auditions for those that will play a role in my summer vacation.