Here’s another of Rhamey’s posts where he presents the first page of a current bestseller and asks whether you would turn the page. I do like these posts, particularly since I absolutely never look at bestseller lists and therefore never have a clue what book or author the page might be from. I’ve seldom read anything by that author and therefore don’t generally have preconceived ideas about their writing.
Here’s the current entry:
A cottage on the rocky shoreline, with knotty pine floorboards and windows that are nearly always open. The smell of evergreens and brine wafting in on the breeze, and white linen drapes lifting in a lazy dance. The burble of a coffee maker, and that first deep pull of cold ocean air as we step out onto the flagstone patio, steaming mugs in hand.
My friends: willowy, honey-haired Sabrina and wisp of a waif Cleo, with her tiny silver septum piercing and dip-dyed box braids. My two favorite people on the planet since our freshman year at Mattingly College.
It still boggles my mind that we didn’t know one another before that, that a stodgy housing committee in Vermont matched the three of us up. The most important friendships in my life all came down to a decision made by strangers, chance. We used to joke that our living arrangement must be some government-funded experiment. On paper, we made no sense.
Sabrina was a born-and-raised Manhattan heiress whose wardrobe was pure Audrey Hepburn and whose bookshelves were stuffed with Stephen King. Cleo was the painter daughter of a semi-famous music producer and an outright famous essayist. She’d grown up in New Orleans and showed up at Mattingly in paint-splattered overalls and vintage Doc Martens.
And me, a girl from southern Indiana, the daughter of a teacher and a dentist’s receptionist…
I often admire a novel that begins with fragments. I don’t see that a lot, but when I do, I’m generally impressed with the prose. Nicola Griffith drew me instantly into The Blue Place when she opened in much this way, a book I loved in a trilogy I loved. Here’s Here’s my review of The Blue Place. Here’s my blog post about technique in The Blue Place. I see this book is still not available in ebook form. That’s a real shame. I will add that I love the other two books in this trilogy, Stay and Always even more than the first. Not only are they not available in ebook, the series isn’t linked together in a series page, and I always wonder what the heck is wrong with the publisher. I sort of had the impression that Griffith got the rights to these back, but if so, she hasn’t done anything with them yet. Maybe I’m wrong.
Anyway, let’s look at how Griffith opens The Blue Place:
An April night in Atlanta between thunderstorms: dark and warm and wet, sidewalks shiny with rain and slick with torn leaves and fallen azaliea blossoms. Nearly midnight. I had been walking for over an hour, covering four or five miles. I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t sleepy.
You would think that my bad dreams would be of the first man I had killed, thirteen years ago. Or if not him, then maybe the teenager who had burned to death in front of me because I was too slow to get the man with the match. But no, when I turn out the lights at ten o’clock and can’t keep still, can’t even bear to sit down in my Lake Claire house, it’s because I see again the first body I hadn’t killed.
This is really a great opening, better than the one above from Rhamey’s post, in my opinion. Of course I’m biased because I already know I love The Blue Place.
I’ve said this before, but when you open with sentence fragments that show the setting, that’s a way of pausing the action while painting the scene. It’s very effective, and not only in openings. I’ve said this before too, because this is the example that brought this technique to my attention, but Dickens uses the same technique to excellent effect in Great Expectations when Pip meets the convict. Hey, look, you can get the Audiobook of Great Expectations for $2.50 right now. I don’t know if that’s at all typical for classics, but there it is.
Meanwhile, back to the actual book from Rhamey’s post, whatever it is.
Here we have two sentence fragments to set the scene and then “we.” Then another pause as the narrator introduces her friends. Then the narrator’s voice actually comes into focus with “boggles the mind.” That phrase is a cliché, which is interesting on the first page of a bestseller. Hard to believe the author didn’t do that on purpose. I don’t know if that it’s a problem. That whole paragraph and the next sets the protagonist’s voice. I’m … not that interested so far. I don’t hate this, but I’m not very interested either.
I’m completely uninterested in anything marketed as literary or women’s fiction, which offhand is what this opening suggests, one or the other. Women’s fiction is a subset of literary, I guess. I haven’t thought about it because I don’t care. Either way, that’s what this opening makes me expect. Or maybe romance? If it’s literary, I would wonder if maybe the protagonist will burn down her life through obsession or something. If it’s romance, of course the plot arc will be much happier!
Just from the first page, sure, I would turn the page . Then I would read the description. This is a situation where the description and maybe reviews would make a lot of difference.
Let me see. Okay, most people are voting NOT to turn the page. Lots of votes for this one for some reason, many more than usual. Rhamey doesn’t much care for this opening. He points to lack of tension, to any hint of where the story might be going. He says there’s no tension in the entire first chapter. Well, I bet he’d like The Blue Place far better, but to me that sound promising! No tension! I’m fine with that!
The book is Happy Place by Emily Henry.
Here’s the description from Amazon:
A couple who broke up months ago pretend to still be together for their annual weeklong vacation with their best friends in this glittering and wise new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Emily Henry.
Harriet and Wyn have been the perfect couple since they met in college—they go together like salt and pepper, honey and tea, lobster and rolls. Except, now—for reasons they’re still not discussing—they don’t.
They broke up five months ago. And still haven’t told their best friends.
Which is how they find themselves sharing a bedroom at the Maine cottage that has been their friend group’s yearly getaway for the last decade. Their annual respite from the world, where for one vibrant, blissful week they leave behind their daily lives; have copious amounts of cheese, wine, and seafood; and soak up the salty coastal air with the people who understand them most.
Only this year, Harriet and Wyn are lying through their teeth while trying not to notice how desperately they still want each other. Because the cottage is for sale and this is the last week they’ll all have together in this place. They can’t stand to break their friends’ hearts, and so they’ll play their parts. Harriet will be the driven surgical resident who never starts a fight, and Wyn will be the laid-back charmer who never lets the cracks show. It’s a flawless plan (if you look at it from a great distance and through a pair of sunscreen-smeared sunglasses). After years of being in love, how hard can it be to fake it for one week…in front of those who know you best?
Ah hah! A rom-com. I assume it’s a rom-com? They’re going to get back together, right? Probably they’re going to get back together. I’m looking at the reviews now. I’m specifically looking at the three-star reviews. Here’s one that makes up my mind for me, a three-star review by someone named Jennifer Collins, if you would like to look at the rest of the review.
I love Emily Henry. She’s a go to author for me. Lovers was literal perfection. I also love second chance. So it kills me that I didn’t overly enjoy this book. I have a huge pet peeve about relationships that end because one character knows what is best for the other WITHOUT HAVING A CONVERSATION! And that was the basis for this book. It examined the idea of happiness and what makes people happy. I got that. But the fact that Wynn decide what was best for Harriet and almost destroyed what was a strong love was infuriating. All of this would have been solved with a conversation.
Fine, that’s a huge pet peeve for me too, so I guess I won’t pick up a sample. I have a couple contemporary romances on my TBR pile you all recommended, and when I want a romance, I’ll pick one of those.
BUT, I would have turned the page. The lack of tension or story definitely does not bother me. I wonder what Rhamey and his commenters would say about From All False Doctrine? There’s a quiet opening with no visible tension, but it’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Also highly engaging, at least for me. I wonder if they would have said, “But there’s no story in the first chapter, there’s no tension.” Hard to say. These first page tests put readers in the mood to be highly critical.
Here’s my post about From All False Doctrine, which as you may recall was one of my very favorite novels that year.
Here, by way of parallelism with Happy Place and The Blue Place, is the first page of From All False Doctrine:
“It isn’t a question of actually believing the teaching,” said Elsa, drilling two neat holes in the sand with the heels of her shoes. “It’s whether or not they believe in the authenticity of the manuscript, that’s all.”
“Gosh, you had better hope that’s all,” said Harriet cheerfully. “It would be so tedious for you, wouldn’t it, to have your research interrupted every so often by cultists wanting to worship the thing you were studying? In my department, now, we don’t have such problems.”
“Good heavens, Harriet — you study money! All sorts of people worship that.”
“Oh, true. Have a grape while I consider a suitable riposte.” Harriet proffered the tin of green grapes that had been nestled on the blanket beside her.
They were seated in the shade of a large blue sun-umbrella — Harriet’s property, like the blanket and the grapes and the vacuum flask of iced tea and the basket that it had all been packed in. They had been there since noon; they had moved the umbrella several times to adjust their pool of shade, and the tea was nearly finished. The day had become blazingly hot, the sky arcing blue-white out over the lake, the water flashing in the sun.
Oh, yes, I still like this a lot, even though it opens not just quietly, but with dialogue — always risky. I remember now that the author is actually foreshadowing a lot of the plot in this chapter, even in the first sentences. So subtle and impressive! You know, I’m having trouble being in the mood to read ANYTHING. Maybe, in between revising Invictus and proofing the Tuyo World Companion, I will re-read this.