I want my novel to have “it.” You know what I mean—that certain something, that special oomph, that magic. All writers want to write this novel, but so few do.
What is “it”? Defining it is part of the problem. We can’t break it down into plot points or character arcs. It isn’t lean or lush narrative. It isn’t a complex structure or a specific point of view. It is all of these and more, something we can’t grasp exactly, but we know it when it is there.
The novels that have it for me:
Alexandre Dumas’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS. I read it at as kid, and so completely immersed myself in the story that I read a French history book to further understand the time period. FOR PLEASURE.
Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Also a childhood experience—this novel opened something inside me that is still alive. I could probably blame my love for advocacy on Ms. Lee.
Pat Conroy’s THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE. Conroy’s masterful storytelling and brave honesty helped me face things in my own life. His love of language is on every page.
Virginia Woolf’s TO THE LIGHTHOUSE. While I’ve never fully grasped this work, it keeps calling me back. I think the vein of darkness there came from the author’s soul, which is something I’d like to understand.
Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE. Linked stories. Poetic narrative. The most unlikeable protagonist that she made me love. I could read this masterpiece every year.
I could add more to this list (CATCHER IN THE RYE, A SEPARATE PEACE, THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, etc), but you’d find no common thread. Each reading experience pulled me out of my life, and opened an inner eye to some new awareness. They left me changed, even if just a little.
I believe they became a part of my DNA.
Your list is, of course, different from mine. But you have one: a group of titles that touched you, that left its fingerprints inside you. It is why you read.
And it is why we write.
Of course, I am not likely to ever write a novel with “it.” I’m realistic about my talent and my limitations. But I will keep trying because all writers must.
Dumas, Lee, Woolf, and, sadly, Conroy, have passed away. But they left us these amazing portals in the pages of their books. We can read them again and again. In that way, they are still alive for us, and for generations to come.
I know of no greater legacy than that.
What books would make your list?