I just finished watching the classic 1940 film, Rebecca, and marvel at how that movie hasn’t really seemed to age. Sure, it’s in black & white, and the clothes and mannerisms and mores have changed significantly. (These days, can you imagine the unnamed narrator not sitting down with her mysterious fiance to say, “What was your first wife like?”)
But the story also makes some very familiar moves: the rambling mansion, the fish out of water trope; the brooding, handsome man with the dark secret (isn’t this every romantic suspense or paranormal novel ever written?). And we can’t forget the narrator’s eagerness to please her new, older husband by changing her clothing and makeup and hair, hoping against hope he’ll at least notice her. (I don’t know about you, but I haven’t come so far that I don’t care if Dear Him notices my hair.)
When I consider the stories that have really stayed with me — and not just because I had to write essays about them — the ones that come to mind were written many, many years ago: Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Can You Forgive Her?, almost anything by Jane Austen, Bleak House. It’s rare for me to remember much about any of the stories I’ve read over the past few years, and now I’ve started to wonder why.
There are some notable exceptions to this rule: the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, the Uplift Trilogy (especially Startide Rising) by David Brin, Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly, and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson. And, Harry Potter, too, of course.
You might have noticed that my exceptions are all science fiction or fantasy novels. I suspect it’s because one of the characteristics of a great story is that it builds a complex and compelling world in which its characters bump up against Life. The books I remember best are actually not the ones with all the technical wizardry or hip dialogue or edge-of-your-seat action. Instead, they’re the ones I feel sad about leaving as the pages wind down. I’ve entered that world, gotten to know its moods and characters, and want to stay there to see what happens next.
The books that stay with me give me a place, as the reader, to inhabit the story alongside the heroes and heroines, antagonists and secondary characters. There’s an intimacy to the writing that invites me to take a seat almost right in the scene. It trusts me to figure out for myself who’s telling the truth and who’s hiding something, or turns and gives me a solemn wink to let me know we’re both in on a joke.
And I think that’s what I’m missing in a lot of commercial fiction these days. We’re so busy writing to formula or making sure we’re following every piece of “best-selling” advice, trying to do it The Right Way, that we forget the vast numbers of readers who simply want to be drawn in, made to feel at home, and told a good story that’s more than a couple of hours of throw-away entertainment. We want a story that reflects who we are while also showing us something new; that comforts us with the familiar while challenging us with the unexpected.
What stories have stayed with you? And why?
Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.