When I have an intimidating pile of books I want to read and am not sure where to start, sometimes I’ll go through and read the just first chapter of each book in turn. Then I’ll read the second chapter of each, and so on, until I get hooked on one and drop the others. Last week, the book that hooked me was Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. I was already tipping at Chapter 2, and when Chapter 3 started it was a done deal. (First sentence: “He should just be castrated.” And that’s before you even get to the kissing and lust.)
I haven’t seen the movie, which everyone said was good, but this is was a great read. Perrotta’s writing is close to my ideal. His prose is clean and uncluttered, and he seems to follow the principle that the story takes precedence over the language, without the language suffering from its supporting role. There is very little here that’s extraneous, either in the diction or in the plot.
The magic of the book isn’t in the level of craftsmanship in the writing, although the craftsmanship is there. Rather, it’s the sympathy every character gets. Even the repugnant characters are humanized and we feel sorry for them. And the hero and heroine conversely aren’t idealized, but I still fell hard for both of them. Compassion and liking for your own characters is something no writing class or book can teach you. Tom Perrotta seems to have both, and they elevate the book from a clever, self-aware tale of modern marital malaises to something beautiful and deeply satisfying.
Also, in a bunch of places, the writing is funny. Not guffawing, thigh-slapping funny, but funny enough to make you stop mentally every now and then and say “ha!” It’s so rare to find literary writing that’s also funny, although maybe it’s just the books I pick. I can count on one hand authors of good literary fiction I’ve read in the past decade who were funny: Tom Perrotta, David Lodge (e.g., Therapy), William Kotzwinkle (The Bear Went Over the Mountain), and grudgingly I might put Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) on there too, because whatever other failings The Corrections has, I have to admit there were some funny bits. But I think Perotta is a much better author than Franzen—unlike Franzen, Perotta doesn’t come across as trying too hard, and Franzen especially suffers by comparison on the measure of character likeability. I should have been able to like a tormented bisexual female chef, for example, but Franzen made even that difficult. While on the other hand, Perrotta arouses my sympathy (to a limited extent) for a convicted pedophile, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment.
Of course, part of the problem is that I just don’t get to read nearly enough (does anyone these days?) If anyone has more suggestions for funny-but-literary authors, I’d love to hear them. A dear friend from high school who like me is an aspiring novelist recently posted on his troubles with overly serious writing. So hopefully he’ll eventually write something “allegedly funny,” as he likes to say and I can read that. But in the meantime, suggestions welcome.
Speaking of little children, last week was my daughter Amandine’s half-birthday—she’s now officially 2 and a half. So in Amandine’s honor, and in honor of all my mom friends who recently had a baby or are about to have one any minute, I thought I’d link to a few songs on the theme of mothers and children.
- No Need to Cry, by Neko Case
- Little Star, by Madonna
- Mama You Sweet, by Lucinda Williams
The Neko Case song isn’t really a mother-child song, but the refrain used to run through my head constantly when Amandine was just born and would cry all the time. I find the Madonna song simultaneously kitschy and moving, like a lot of her songs that I like. But it’s not often that pop megasuperstars sing about tender feelings for their children rather than hookups and doomed love affairs and such, so I just think it’s awesome that song exists. And the Lucinda Williams song is an amazingly good description of the ache and richness of mother-love.
Book status update: Still revising and revising and revising. Starting to trade off critiques with a few people, which is going to be helpful but involves a lot of work reciprocally critiquing others’ manuscripts. I do think the book is gradually sucking less, so that’s good. If anyone is interested in being a beta reader, give me a holler.
6 thoughts on “Mothers and Children”
Good stuff as always — and also as always, strangely relevant to my own issues. I’ve been making some nice headway on some writing since my recent distress, but one of the things I’m struggling with is that I don’t particularly like my central character.
I’ll probably tackle this on my blog over the weekend, but — part of this is by design. He’s got some issues and some not-great ways of dealing with them. But even taking that into account I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for him. Some of his fellow characters, yes — him, no. Hmm.
Great post Therese! Super interesting!
Greg – interesting! Hmmm. It seems there are certainly plenty of examples in literature of unlikeable characters … it’s just that my favorite books have likeable ones it seems … maybe that’s just me!
Oh, and thanks for reading, Isabelle!