Today I'm going to talk about the depth(?)s of human nature in three books I loved and one book I hated (or strongly disliked). In fiction, sometimes the characters go deeper than the storyline. In the three books I loved, the characters did just that. In the one I disliked, the main character is in the midst of a plot that gets more complicated as time and pages go on, but the character remains unchanged and uninteresting, thus it seems to beg a life change. How do we seek out and find really great books, where characters live, breathe, die, and are changed by the circumstances of life? That is what I hope to find out.
In the novella or short story, The Death of Ivan Illych, the main character faces a long, slow death after it is clear he has lived an immoral life wrought with adultery and jealousy. Like other works by Tolstoy, the plot and characters stay in the spotlight of our imagination and it is made even more beautiful by the winsome philosophy woven throughout. The character faces the moral dilemma: needing to ask for help, by humbling himself to ask his servant to hold his legs up to relieve his pain in the midst of dying. Tolstoy does not mince words, and to be honest this book is a little discouraging. But hang on: his storytelling keeps us attached to his every word, namely because of deep, interesting characters.
Another book that I love and have reread many times is The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. In it, we meet Colin and Mary, a pair who have many things in common. Instead of being a caricature of children- cheesy and "virtuous"- these characters have many flaws and we recognize a shimmer of something in ourselves. Namely, they are believable. Colin and Mary are cousins; they love picture books; they are both bossy and do not like to go outdoors. Their similarities contrast sharply with the boy from the Yorkshire moor, Dickon. He loves animals, and growing things, and can awaken a secret garden using only a spade and a package of seeds. The book comes alive and the reader with it, as we see a spiritual and physical garden reawaken at the hands of these interesting children.
- The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton is a book that I felt did not have a down reaching impact on me or my heart. The characters- namely the main character- does not undergo any serious change, nor does she seem to have any deep friendships. The thrust of the book is the twisting plotline. While echoing (or attempting to echo) Faulkner and referencing Moby Dick, this book isn't a classic. How do I know? I just think that it is a trending book- with many non-literary reviews on Goodreads and Amazon- that doesn't get under your skin. Whether it be through beauty, deep souls, or gorgeous writing, a classic is a book that doesn’t give us a diatribe or a literary harangue: it leaves us changed. This book just didn't fall into that category for me.
The final book I want to mention is The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. Here is a book that I think isn't classic, but it should be. Rather than a mere plot twister, the main character faces a moral dilemma and comes out changed for the better. It's a newer book than Tolstoy, but the writing, the plotline, the characters, and the effect on the soul is great: it is pure greatness. The main character is quirky, and flawed (she dislikes her overbearing mother and seeks to offend her occasionally). Her moral dilemma is that she is faced with the idea of death, and she must decide how to overcome her fears and live life to the fullest, without offending her religious, decorous, auspiciously wealthy family. I'm happy to report that you will whiz through the last 30 pages to find out if she is successful in this or not.
I try to seek out worthwhile books for myself and my children. Sometimes it is more difficult than it might seem at first sight. While it isn't wrong to read "good" books sometimes, a book should be more than a good plot. A great book will be more than that. A classic will leave us changed, and that's what I'm going to try to set out to read (or keep reading). ;-) To quote Bret Lott*: "Hearts moving, by the way, the reason any of us ought to write."
*From his book Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life