Would you turn the page?

Here’s a recent “Flogging the Pro” post from Ray Ramey at Writer Unboxed: Flog a Pro: Would You Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?

Here’s the first part of the page:

Back in 1961, when women wore shirtwaist dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children around in seatbeltless cars without giving it a second thought; back before anyone knew there’d even be a sixties movement, much less one that its participants would spend the next sixty years chronicling; back when the big wars were over and the secret wars had just begun and people were starting to think fresh and believe everything was possible, the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over.

Despite that certainty, she made her way to the lab to pack her daughter’s lunch.

And I actually like this a lot. It reminds me of … something. I’m trying to think what. This opening, with “Back in the day, when this and that, when the other, when this other thing …” and then bringing the reader actually into the pov right at the end of the paragraph … definitely reminds me of something. Not just “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” although that is actually similar. Something else.

This also appeals to me. I like the way this starts very wide and then abruptly narrows, and I like the way we start with a huge thing — “her life was over” — and then immediately transition to something very prosaic — making her child’s lunch.

Now, I mean this appeals to me stylistically. In other ways, this opening makes me suspicious. Is this some sort of grindingly depressing literary novel about the hopelessness of finding meaning in life, or something like that? Because ha ha ha no, not interested in that at all, and these paragraphs sure look like they could go that way.

Here’s the rest of the first page:

Fuel for learning, Elizabeth Zott wrote on a small slip of paper before tucking it into her daughter’s lunch box. Then she paused, her pencil in midair, as if reconsidering. Play sports at recess but do not automatically let the boys win, she wrote on another slip. Then she paused again, tapping her pencil against the table. It is not your imagination, she wrote on a third. Most people are awful. She placed the last two on top.

Most young children can’t read, and if they can, it’s mostly words like “dog” and “go.” But Madeline had been reading since age three and, now, at age five, was already through most of Dickens.

Madeline was that kind of child — [snip]

I’m still torn.

Giving advice to a child who is, perhaps, a genius: okay.

Telling this child that most people are awful: Good God Above, woman, what is wrong with you?

So, stylistically, this is very good. The writing is definitely solid. I like this a lot, in that way. But wow, I am repulsed by the protagonist. Would I turn the page? Yes, I would. Would I expect to read more than one chapter? No, I would not.

Okay, I’m going to click through and hit the “yes” for turn the page, even though I strongly doubt that I would actually read this book. I don’t know what book this is or who wrote it yet — I haven’t looked — and I haven’t yet looked at Ray Ramey’s comments either.

Okay, he voted Yes-ish, but for different reasons than mine. About 80% of readers would turn the page. I’ve never heard of the author, but nothing surprising there, of course. Great heaping gobs of authors I’ve never heard of.

What did you think of the first page?

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5 thoughts on “Would you turn the page?”

  1. Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus. Worthy of its bestseller status, IMO, but a book where I connected so strongly to the heroine that I found it almost physically painful to read. And not because she’s sympathetic — you’re quite right, she actually makes some terrible choices. But she’s a scientist who wants nothing more than to be a scientist trying to live in a world where women are housewives and second-class citizens and objects — 1950s or 60s America. It’s a fun book, it’s not The Handmaid’s Tale — she triumphs in the end and she brings other women along with her. She winds up starring in a cooking show, PBS-style, and encouraging women to understand that their work is important and smart and worthy of being valued. But I still found it hard to read, because it’s a world in which women need to smile and make nice and pander to men’s egos just to get by and she is a woman who is constitutionally incapable of doing so. Example: (not really a spoiler, it happens early) She is attacked and raped by the professor in charge of her academic department as a grad student and she fights back. The police blame her for attacking him and she gets kicked out of school. It happens pretty quickly, it’s not graphic violence or written to be erotic in any way, but it was just awful to read, perhaps because it felt so real and true to women’s experience. But she is the kind of character who is always going to fight back, because she just can’t do anything different. I did keep turning pages!

  2. The first paragraph is talking about the time of my early childhood and grabs me with nostalgic recognition of well-chosen details.

    “Her life was over” and telling her daughter that most people are awful lean me against reading on.

    I am curious enough about why she is packing her daughter’s lunch in a lab that I would probably read on a bit.

  3. I’m with OtterB: the “lab” comment caught me and makes me curious enough to read more than the first page. But “most people are awful” would have to be given really good context really quickly. And “her life was over” doesn’t give me a great vibe either: is she whiny? melodramatic?

    I do want to know what happens to Madeline: I’m quite concerned for her!

    I think I would have a hard time reading this, based on Sarah’s comments: I would just be infuriated the whole time! Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history books deal with similar themes, but being fantasy allow her to give her protagonists more opportunities than they would have had in real life!

  4. I actually really really dislike it for stylistic reasons.

    The first paragraph takes too long, dragging onward too much by those semicolons. I want to know what happened “Back in 1961,…” and need to go through multiple sentences, and plenty of chances to lose focus, until I find out it’s “Back in 1961, … the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott…” . I mean, yes, it’s pretty and flowing and sets the scene well, so I like it in that regard, but if I need to break in the first paragraph to figure out what’s happening, it’s not good.

    Also, she rose before dawn “every morning” being certain of something, and despite that certainty she “made her way to the lab to pack her daughter’s lunch.” . Wait, what, she went to the lab every morning, weekends and all, to pack the lunch for her daughter? No, she didn’t. That “Despite that certainty” is doing too much work, it doesn’t read to me like we’re properly switching from a general statement of something that happens every morning, to a specific moment in time in a specific morning.

    The notes are also not clear (I’m ignoring here the fact that the copy here lost the italics to differentiate them, since that does exist at the source. Would have still preferred double-quotes, but it’s at least easy to understand). Are the last two notes “It is not your imagination” and “Most people are awful” ? Or are they “Play sports at recess but do not automatically let the boys win” and “It is not your imagination Most people are awful” ? Because, well, that “Most” there is capitalized, and it is a quote, and we do not get an indication of a comma on that last note. Previous note text came with a non-note sentence part telling us what happened with them but “Most people are awful” is there by itself as an individual sentence.

    I assume I’m being petty here and they’re connected, but having to think about it and try to infer from the structure of the paragraph and following mentions of which note goes where (if these two are separate then there is the sports note for which we don’t get told where she places it, which may be a strong hint it’s not an individual note but which may also just not be mentioned) is, again, a lot of really unnecessary work.

    Unless, again, they are separate (since also from context so far each note-text was for an individual note, and each starting a sentence, so that’s also a fair thing to infer. Why is “each note got its own sentence” less convincing than “we don’t have to get told on which paper each note-text is written but we do have to get told where each paper is placed” ?).

    Semantically, if these are a single note, though, then she’s not quite *telling* her daughter that most people are awful. Rather, she knows the daughter already thinks this, probably that her daughter has a reason to think this based on what she has to deal with, and just reaffirming for her that she’s not imagining things. Which is still sad, but not quite as sad, possibly setting up the possibility for a later discussion of complexities and nuance, and just wanting to make sure that until then her daughter won’t think it’s her own fault if people around her behave badly towards her.

    Without knowing anything else on the book, I’d probably have like the overall tone better if they were separate, Since a general note of “You’re not imagining things” all by itself is… interesting. If that was the case, and with the rest of the info and style of these few starting paragraph, I’d have probably classified this as urban fantasy or something with strong steampunk or horror notes. In which case there may be a very good reason why most “people” are awful, and maybe why she knows for certain her life is indeed over…
    Alas, not the case.

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