Would you turn the page?

Here’s one of Rhamey’s posts: would you turn the page of this bestseller? I do like these challenges, although to be fair, I really ought to figure out what the bestselling fantasy and SF titles are and post one of those. But then I would know who the author was before I looked at the first page, which isn’t as much fun.

Anyway, first page:

***

The walled and gated McGrath estate was a world unto itself, protected and private. On this twilit evening, the Tudor-style home’s mullioned windows glowed jewel-like amid the lush, landscaped grounds. Palm fronds swayed overhead; candles floated on the surface of the pool and golden lanterns hung from the branches of a large California live oak. Black-clad servers moved among the well-dressed crowd, carrying silver trays full of champagne, while a jazz trio played softly in the corner.

Twenty-year-old Frances Grace McGrath knew what was expected of her tonight. She was to be the very portrait of a well-bred young lady, smiling and serene; any untoward emotions were to be contained and concealed, borne in silence. The lessons Frankie had been taught at home and at church and at St. Bernadette’s Academy for Girls had instilled in her a rigorous sense of propriety. The unrest going on across the country these days, erupting on city streets and college campuses, was a distant and alien world to her, as incomprehensible as the conflict in faraway Vietnam.

She circulated among the guests, sipping an ice-cold Coca-Cola, trying to smile, stopping now and then to make small talk with her parents’ friends, hoping her worry didn’t show. All the while, her gaze searched the crowd for her brother, who was late to his own party.

***

What do you think?

I think the first paragraph does okay at establishing the setting — it’s fairly minimal, but it’s good enough to see the scene. However, I don’t like this kind of setting. The second paragraph does okay at establishing the protagonist. I don’t like her either. I think both the setting and the protagonist are terribly cliched, and they are cliches I dislike. I would not turn the page. I’m repulsed by the page — not strongly, but definitely repulsed.

As a separate question, is this opening active or passive? Remember when I posted a bit of Laura Ruby’s books and bolded the telling? Or what I thought might count as telling? Let me try that here.

***

The walled and gated McGrath estate was a world unto itself, protected and private. On this twilit evening, the Tudor-style home’s mullioned windows glowed jewel-like amid the lush, landscaped grounds. Palm fronds swayed overhead; candles floated on the surface of the pool and golden lanterns hung from the branches of a large California live oak. Black-clad servers moved among the well-dressed crowd, carrying silver trays full of champagne, while a jazz trio played softly in the corner.

Twenty-year-old Frances Grace McGrath knew what was expected of her tonight. She was to be the very portrait of a well-bred young lady, smiling and serene; any untoward emotions were to be contained and concealed, borne in silence. The lessons Frankie had been taught at home and at church and at St. Bernadette’s Academy for Girls had instilled in her a rigorous sense of propriety. The unrest going on across the country these days, erupting on city streets and college campuses, was a distant and alien world to her, as incomprehensible as the conflict in faraway Vietnam.

She circulated among the guests, sipping an ice-cold Coca-Cola, trying to smile, stopping now and then to make small talk with her parents’ friends, hoping her worry didn’t show. All the while, her gaze searched the crowd for her brother, who was late to his own party.

***

The thing is, I like description, so the first paragraph doesn’t bother me at all just because it’s static. I’m fine with beginning with static description. It’s not a bad idea to snap a still image and begin with that. Two or three paragraphs of static description would be fine with me, if the description was good and engaging. I think the description here is good, but not engaging.

But to me, the second paragraph might as well read:

Insert completely cliched young woman who, gasp! doesn’t like formal parties.

So … taking a moment to do static description of the protagonist is not working for me. I don’t think you have to open with action. I don’t even think it’s important to open with action. But this particular opening doesn’t work for me because I don’t find this protagonist at all interesting of fun. I think she’s completely boring. The missing brother is not enough to make me care about the protagonist.

Oh, this is Kristen Hannah’s The Women. I’ve heard of that. I have no inclination to read it. Here’s the description from Amazon:

Women can be heroes. When twenty-year-old nursing student Frances “Frankie” McGrath hears these words, it is a revelation. Raised in the sun-drenched, idyllic world of Southern California and sheltered by her conservative parents, she has always prided herself on doing the right thing. But in 1965, the world is changing, and she suddenly dares to imagine a different future for herself. When her brother ships out to serve in Vietnam, she joins the Army Nurse Corps and follows his path.

As green and inexperienced as the men sent to Vietnam to fight, Frankie is over-whelmed by the chaos and destruction of war. Each day is a gamble of life and death, hope and betrayal; friendships run deep and can be shattered in an instant. In war, she meets—and becomes one of—the lucky, the brave, the broken, and the lost.

But war is just the beginning for Frankie and her veteran friends. The real battle lies in coming home to a changed and divided America, to angry protesters, and to a country that wants to forget Vietnam.

The Women is the story of one woman gone to war, but it shines a light on all women who put themselves in harm’s way and whose sacrifice and commitment to their country has too often been forgotten. A novel about deep friendships and bold patriotism, The Women is a richly drawn story with a memorable heroine whose idealism and courage under fire will come to define an era.

I doubt this can in any way compare to Rose Under Fire. That’s the “young women going to war” story I would recommend.

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18 thoughts on “Would you turn the page?”

  1. I still remember the opening of Mercedes Lackey’s BY THE SWORD because it presented such a wonderful busy scene of a young woman competently managing the (medieval) kitchens for her brother’s engagement party. She wasn’t having fun either but she had a job to do and she was GOOD at it. That’s a protagonist I’d much rather follow.

  2. Also I note that ROSE UNDER FIRE is $1.99 today (3/28/24) and I’m snapping it up on your rec!

  3. Mary Beth, so if the writer had conveyed that however the POV woman felt about it, on the outside she was doing it well and competently – not sure how, maybe remarking on how people interacted with her and how different it was from what was going on interiorly? – that would have been more engaging? or at least an improvement on what is there?

    I wouldn’t turn the page, to answer the original question. Probably wouldn’t have picked up the book in the first place.

  4. Elaine, in the book I’m thinking of, the protagonist (Kerowyn) is managing the kitchens as they prepare a major feast with lots of courses and moving parts (coordination of servers, dishes, kitchen staff, etc). She’s unhappy about being relegated to the kitchens while everyone else in the family is feasting, but she’s got a job to do and she does it very well. Right up until the feast is attacked by bandits and she needs to ride off to rescue her brother’s bride…

    So yes there’s a lot of interiority (…probably too much, as I remember Lackey’s narrative faults), but it’s an interesting scene on its own and a great display of early competence from a woman whose entire plotline is about competence — she grows into being an extremely skilled captain of a mercenary corps, and we see her managerial abilities from page 1. I’d say it’s a scene that does its narrative job in setting up a lot about the character, her setting, and her eventual arc. (With the bonus that I adore getting to see competent women doing a job well!)

    For the scene at hand, I probably can’t expect the party to be interrupted by bandits, but I’d be a lot more engaged if I got to see Frances handling her social duties with skill and a smile–maybe sorting out an unpleasant guest interaction, handling a problem with the caterers, etc. That would give me some sense of who she is and how she will handle the problems that are coming her way. Hard to do in the first three paragraphs of course, but as Rachel points out, right now she’s just a glassy smile without much else behind it (discounting worry for her brother, whom I don’t care about yet.)

  5. I noticed the price on Rose Under Fire at B&N and picked it up.

    The description of The Women has intrigued me before and I may still give it a try. The first page was neutral for me, neither “yes, give me more” nor “ick, no.” I wouldn’t want to continue long in this mode but I am okay with it as a setup of this person’s current state so we know the base she is growing from.

  6. The Teen and I have opinions about that Lacky book. We once spent some weeks – after I reread it so I could follow Teen’s opinions – working out just how the author failed to convince us of the main character’s competence. It was interesting and has helped me figure out much earlier just what has gone wrong in other books that I am DNFing. Not always about competence, but more generally, does the text support what the narrative is claiming?

    For the sample above about Frances, your suggestion would be a lot better than what we got. Maybe the author didn’t think it was important since she’s going to run away to war instead of be social. OTOH, being competent at social interactions is a valuable skill under any conditions. Think about defusing a clash over scarce resources in a war zone, or something. So the author not showing us is a failure on multiple grounds.

  7. Elaine T:
    Yes to both. For the first half of the book especially,
    Kerowyn never shares her thoughts and opinions with her colleagues. In one situation in particular, it would have made an enormous difference.

  8. Elaine and Pete, I haven’t reread the book since I was probably The Teen’s age (at a wild guess) so fond memory may be colouring it more brightly than it’s due. Though if that’s the case, good on The Teen for being more perceptive than I was at that age!

  9. Mary Beth, I think a lot of people must be in your shoes. I’ve been baffled by the praise I’ve seen for it and the protagonist. But if you take everything at face value and don’t notice that, for example, there’s only one accomplishment that gets lauded and repeated throughout the text, for all the protagnist’s supposed greatness, and that one was when she was being puppeted by a magic sword … Well, once you do notice that sort of thing it’s hard not to start noticing how much else there isn’t to back the claims of excellence. Even though the story does have the character actually do things successfully throughout. But they’re never mentioned again as anything special. Or that’s what I remember we decided was a lot of it. There’s more, but you’d need the Teen and she’d probably write a long essay and that’s not what we’re hear for.

    The Teen is gifted at spotting patterns such as that, and we both love to analyze how stories work. So when one of us remarked something like “kerowyn is not the second coming of King Arthur/Nerevar,* even if the story treats her as such” we started looking at just what the text was doing and how it was making us skeptical.

    *(I definitely remember making the King Arther one, Teen made it Nerevar who comes from Elder Scrolls)

  10. I am now quite curious to know what The Teen’s top ten favorite books are! The Teen seems to have great taste and a good analytic sense of things.

  11. Alison, so I passed on your question, and now have this:

    Top ten favorite books is a difficult category to answer, as I define favorite in a few different ways re-readability, how much it impacted how I think, how much affection I hold for it, how often I think of it, and how often I actually revisit it.
    For example :
    My top favorite poetry books are as follows:
    1. The Rubiyat – Third Edition
    2. Lays of Beleriand JRRT
    3. The Song of Hiawatha
    4. Poems by Poe
    5. The Complete verse of Alfred Noyes
    6. The Pied Piper of Hamelin – Browning
    7. The space Child’s Mother Goose – Winsor
    8. Beowulf – Seamus Heaney translation

    Top ten Books that have made their way into my heart,; or The Books I can still quote however rarely I think of them

    1. The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, Tolkien
    2. Giftwish/Catchfire- Graham Dustin Martin
    3. A Night in the Lonesome October, Zelazney
    4. The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne– Translated by Jordan Stump
    5. The Princess and Curdie – McDonald
    6. The Sign of the Four + The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
    7. The Winter of the World trilogy- Michael Scott Rohan
    8. Endymion Spring – Skelton
    9. The Jewel of the Seven Stars – Bram Stoker
    10. Deerskin – McKinley
    11. The Tears of the Salamander – Dickinson

    Top ten fun and intelligent books
    1. Doorways in the sand- Zelazney
    2. Murder, with Peacocks – Donna Andrews (A murder Mystery I actually couldn’t solve is very hard to find)
    3. The Wolf Hunt- Bradshaw
    4. Books of Amber – first five, Roger Zelazney
    5. Green Knowe – Boston
    6. Honeycomb – joanne Harris
    7. The Hand of Mary Constable- Gallico
    8. We’ll Always have Parrots – Donna Andrews
    9. The beacon at Alexandria – Bradshaw
    10. The Magic Bird of Chomo-Lung Ma – Sybille Noel (collected the tales in the 1930s ish while trekking through the Himalayas)

    Top ten probably aimed at younger readers but I don’t care / Books I read young and consider to be a book for the young, even if it really wasn’t.
    1. Deltora series- Emily Rodda. Every time I revisit it, I’m amazed all over again that I didn’t exaggerate them in memory.
    2. Grimbold’s Other World – Nicholas Stuart Gray
    3. Three Investigators series
    4. The Silver Curlew – Eleanor Farjeon
    5. The Ship that Flew – Hilda Lewis
    6. Rowan of Rin Series – Emily Rodda
    7. Uncle – J.P.Martin
    8. Artemis Fowl, Volumes 1 to 5 – Colfer
    9. Alphabet of Thorns – McKillip
    10. Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard – Farjeon
    I have no concept of age appropriate. Some of these I have loved since I could read. The Lord of the Rings I have loved since before I could read. Thank Rob Ingles Audiobook of it for that.

  12. Thanks, Elaine, and wow, A Spacechild’s Guide to Mother Goose! That takes me back. I wonder if we still have a copy somewhere in the family? I loved that book.

  13. Elaine T’s Teen here:
    I forgot a quartet: Elanor Cameron’s mushroom planet books
    Thurber’s Thirteen Clocks
    Gray’s: How Many miles to Fabylon
    Fry’s: The Castle Family

  14. Rachel, Space Child’s Mother Goose was reprinted some years ago – good thing, too, copies were difficult to find and expensive – and is still available. If your copy has gone missing, that is. I once could recite most of it. Still can, some. I love “the theory that Jack built” and the variations on the black hen and her probable possible eggs.

  15. Possible Probable, my black hen
    Only lays eggs in the relative when
    She never lays eggs in the positive now
    Because she’s unable to postulate how.

    I’m not sure I got that completely right, but I think that’s mostly right. And I didn’t realize it had been reprinted. I’ll check to see this book wound up at my mother’s house, and if it’s not there, I’ll get a new copy. And thanks!

  16. Plus que possible ma poule noire, Elle pond ses oef dans le Quand-provisoire. Elle ne pond point dans une periode sure, Car l’experience serait bien trop dure.

    Also in hieroglyph, Greek, and Swahili. And (probably) Chinese. It’s something Asian. the Greek and Chinese got translations.

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