What is it that inspires a novelist to select her subject matter? Does she have a desire to explore possibilities beyond her experience? To lay down her experience in hopes of discovering what went wrong? To lay down her experience in hopes of elucidating what went right?
"Adversity in life does not rob your heart of beauty, but teaches it a new song to sing," writes bestselling novelist Karen White in her novel titled "The Time Between". Protagonist Eleanor Murray discovers this truth when faced with an elder Hungarian woman who is also struggling to forgive herself and her sister.
Such a sentiment does not ring true with two other novels about women facing love and adversity:
- "Freud's Mistress" by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman offers a tedious insertion of contemporary sensibilities onto an historic figure who may or may not have had an affair with her brother-in-law Sigmund Freud. The pair of novelists tell the story of a lonely, egotistical spinster, who, having lost at love and profession, betrays her sister in the deepest way. Intellectual Minna Bernays gives in to her passion, rationalizing all the way into her sister's husband's bed. Adversity has not given Minna a new song to sing; it has transformed her into a clinging vine.
- "The Storyteller" by Jodi Picoult provides another example of Karen White's quote gone wrong. In this novel, lonely protagonist Sage Singer deceives herself, playing God with other people's lives. It's amazing how long one can delude one's self; three times Sage discovers the men in her life are not as they appear. And yet she inserts misguided power over each of them; even holding one's life literally in her hands. Sage does not learn a new song in the end, though her attempts at research generate suspenseful reading. Sage botches the central challenge she faces and betrays her trusting boyfriend, rationalizing away the harm she has accomplished; no small thing considering she is now guilty of murder.
Mack/Kaufman and Picoult enhance these stories of stagnant protagonists by either:
- associating the character with a more titillating historical persona like Freud or
- coupling the main character's tale with that of a heartrending moment in history, such as the Holocaust.
Are women as petty as all that? Are authors as lazy as all that?
Eye-opening to discover that Helen Fielding's third in a triology I have never read, titled "Bridget Jones, Mad About the Boy" suits White's edification by means of adversity in life and raises it ten points, adding laugh out loud humor.
Bridget Jones, the most self-determined woman in the set of four mentioned here, bumbles into an affair with a younger man, texts her children while attempting to close a script deal, and rejects the advances of a married man despite ever-present loneliness. The woman knows who she is; she doesn't give herself more or less credit than she deserves.
She has lost her husband, but she does not wallow. She maintains her integrity, carves out a new niche for herself. In other words, she accomplishes what characters in quality books are meant to accomplish; she reflects on her reality, takes a deep breath and sings a new song. Characters who fall back into old patterns leave the reader cold; better to have written a short story containing such a droll message.
Or for the authors to have dropped the dull protagonists, focusing on the portion of the story that fascinates.