Instead of reviewing a particular book today, I wanted to talk about what happens when I try to advise a person on what to read and then discover a “theme” that all of the books they’ve liked have in common. This makes it so much easier to recommend something. Even if the style of book they like isn’t my particular cup of tea, it is easier to find read-alikes once I know what their “hook” is.
For example, there are some readers out there – and when I meet one, I always want to go out for coffee and write down everything they have read that I haven’t – who love, as I do, the Long Rambling Novel. You know – those weighty tomes that allow you to watch a character go through (occasionally improbable but always exciting) events one after the other, as they strive toward some goal that always hangs just beyond their grasp, or try to solve some mystery that they just can’t crack. These books are often historical, and involve actual people and events, but shown from the protagonist’s perspective. This gives them a nice basis in reality no matter how fanciful the plot gets. My ultimate example of the Long Rambling Novel is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. If you find someone who has loved GWTW, this person has probably also read and loved Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, or will once s/he has tried them. It’s a bit of a stretch, but readers of this type might also like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, or Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy. I might go so far as to put Rebecca by Daphne DuMarier in this class, and if I stretch really really hard I could say Beauty by Sheri Tepper might satisfy as well, though the history element isn’t there unless you count fairy tale history. If I can discount history and reality entirely, I would say that Bujold’s Vorkosigan series fits this feel, as well as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead (which should be one book, and should never have had any sequels – but that’s just my opinion, by all means read them all if you have the time, but I already did and if you trust me, I can save you the trouble – don’t bother).
I just realized that the majority of the previously mentioned books (the Sci Fi excepted) have female protagonists, but there are male analogues such as Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd or Jude the Obscure, and some Dickens – Great Expectations pops to mind. The main thing all of these novels have in common is the bond the reader forms with the protagonist and the world he or she lives in. The story may not be totally believable, the character might not be quite likeable, but once you put the book down, you miss that character, and his or her family and friends, and the world s/he lives in. Based on that criteria, I’d say John Irving’s novels qualify as well. (A Widow for One Year if you are female, many of the others if you are male. But you can probably skip Setting Free the Bears or The Water Method Man, trust me. You’re welcome.)
As I write this, I realize another thing that most of these protagonists have in common – each is absolutely, positively determined to get what he or she wants, collateral damage be damned. As Rhett says to Scarlett, “You say if you had it all to do over again, you’d do it differently. But would you? Think, now. Would you?…You are in the exact position of a thief who’s been caught red-handed and isn’t sorry he stole but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail.” Amber from Forever Amber isn’t any less selfish, and if you look at his actions objectively, Pip from Great Expectations is a totally self-centered opportunist jerk. And don’t get me started on Edmond Dantes, the dude kills people. I’m now kind of worried what this says about me that I love these fictional narcissists so much. But it’s hard not to love a character who works so hard toward something, even if they fail and mow down everyone around them in the process.
Others in a similar vein:
Iola Fuller – The Loon Feather
Madeleine L’Engle – The Small Rain and its sequel, A Severed Wasp
Philip Pullman – His Dark Materials trilogy
Can you add some Long Rambling Novels to my list? Please, have at it in the comments. I always need new ones.