The Joys and Heartache (sometimes) of Reading

thehelpI’m at the half-way point of the book I’m currently reading, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and I’m really enjoying it. Finding it hard to put the book down.  But about 100 pages ago, I started getting that pit in my stomach, that anxious thought in my mind: “This all might not turn out so well…”

The book, in a nutshell, takes place in Jackson, Mississippi during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and is about two African-American nanny/housekeepers who team up with a white female writer to tell their stories about what it’s like to work in white households.  The idea that it’s okay for black housekeepers to raise the children of white families, but aren’t allowed to use the same bathroom as them.   The book is divided between three different points of view– the two African-American housekeepers and the white woman interviewing them.  All three characters are aware that there is incredible danger in meeting together.  And because of the danger that is so prevalent, I find it hard to put the book down, because I want to know what’s going to happen.  I want to know that the characters are going to be okay.  And then it hit me:

Maybe they won’t be.

I read a beautiful post awhile ago by Jane at Dear Author, about the journey a reader goes on when picking up a book, and the trust that goes into the reader/author relationship.   For me, The Help is a great example of that.  I have a feeling the ending of this book is not going to be all sunshine and roses, but I’m willing to go with the author wherever she wants to lead, because she’s had me hooked from the beginning.

splendidsuns21I had a similar, and even stronger, reaction when I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.  Wow, did that book just tear me up.  Never before has my book club been so universally moved by a book, I don’t think. While reading it, and afterward, I was depressed, furious, bruised, battered… but also incredibly touched and just so amazingly appreciative of my life.  There were scenes in it that wrenched my heart in a way that I haven’t forgotten, and likely will never forget.  But as difficult as those scenes might be, there is a beauty in being touched by a book that way.

loving2Loving Frank by Nancy Horan is another example.  This book sure gets the award for taking me in a direction I didn’t expect.  I trusted the author, even though she pulled the rug out from under me and hit me with an ending I was completely unprepared for.  The climax of this book haunted me for some time… but that, in itself, says something about  the story and the writing.

I did an interview a few weeks ago, where I talked about the appeal of romantic fiction, and how there is a comfort in the guarantee of a happy/optimistic ending.  Now, I have read romance novels that dealt with some very serious topics (Fragile by Shiloh Walker and Blue-Eyed Devil by Lisa Kleypas immediately come to mind), but I did have, at least, a certain peace while reading those books that somehow, some way, everything was going to work out in the end.  And there is incredible value in providing that comfort.  Sure, there are times when I want to be shocked and awed and touched, but then there are times when I want to be awed and touched and uplifted— and with no genre other than romance, in my experience, have I been able to count on this.

I think, to follow Jane’s analogy, there are times when I want to slip my hand into an author’s and have her or him say, “I make no promises.  But you’ll never forget this journey.”  And then there are times when I want the author to smile and say with a wink, “Trust me.”

When I began my writing career– writing screenplays– I think I struggled with this.  My scripts crossed the spectrum–I wrote a couple of romantic comedies, but then I also wrote some dark, suspenseful thrillers.  At one point in my career, my film agent suggested that I choose a tone so that people knew what to expect when reading one of my scripts.  I, naively, was resistant to this at first, thinking it shouldn’t matter as long as the story was a good one.  But now, having broadened my own reading, I understand better:  readers want to have some idea of what they’re diving into before committing to a 120 page screenplay or 300+ page novel.

Perhaps I’m focused on this right now for personal reasons.  Just a few weeks ago, my literary agent, in praising the manuscript for my next book, described it as a “romantic suspense.”  Of course I was pleased by her reaction, but a part of me was surprised:  Wait– I wrote a romantic suspense? I, on the other hand, would describe it as a romantic comedy with a suspense subplot.

Hmm… so what else can I tell you about book 3?  Yes, true, it has more thrills (and is longer and steamier) than my first two, but— Oh, wait.

I guess you’re just going to have to trust me.


But enough rambling from me… I’d love to know what you expect, as a reader.  Do your expectations differ depending on the genre?  What will make you stick with a story that goes in a direction you didn’t anticipate?

**Edited to add:  I finished the book and was moved by how touching and–yes–uplifting the ending is.  Sure, there were some tears over a particularly moving scene at the end, but not the bad kind of tears.  I’d highly recommend this book.  The three women protagonists that are the core of this story are all great characters you’ll get behind and cheer for.

11 thoughts on “The Joys and Heartache (sometimes) of Reading

  1. Rowena says:

    Do my expectations differ when reading different genres. I only expect the obvious stuff. If I pick up a RS then I expect a romance with suspense, if I pick up a contemporary, then I expect something light and funny and so on but what keeps me in a story are the characters. My favortie stories are character driven and if you can give me characters that leap off the pages and make them real to me, ill go wherever the author leads me.

  2. Julie says:

    Hi Rowena: Thanks for dropping by! I tend to agree with you– if the characters are well-drawn, and the story is good, I’m comfortable enough thinking the author knows what she or he is doing.

  3. Stacy ~ says:

    Like Rowena, it tends to vary based on genre, but as I was thinking about this, I remembered that when I read romances written in the 70’s and 80’s, many of them involved scenarios where the heroine was victimized in some fashion, often by the hero, yet I never batted an eye when I read them back then. Nowadays however if I read a scene like that, where the heroine has been brutalized or abused, I have to put the book down and walk away.

    Intellectually I understand that writing a violent scene where a character is faced with the horrible realities of a certain time period, where it’s not uncommon for women to be beaten and/or raped, can create an emotionally charged story that affects the reader more strongly than if the heroine is kept from being touched by these grim circumstances, but I find I don’t want to go there. It’s like those tragic love stories (i.e. Romeo & Juliet) that end up being more popular because they didn’t end happily. I get why, but the impractical romantic streak in my nature doesn’t want to face reality. Which means I probably won’t be reading this book.

  4. Elyssa Papa says:

    Yes, I think my expectations differ. I know that when I read a romance that there will be a HEA; however, this still doesn’t stop me from reading the end because . . . what if the author decides to pull a Margaret Mitchell?

    One of my favorite books is The Lovely Bones, and that book left me in a wreck. Same goes with the last Harry Potter book because no one knew if Harry would live or die. If the story is “good,” I will read it, even knowing there won’t be a HEA possibly. But, really, I prefer the HEA books. LOL.

    If you like an author’s writing style, chances are that you’ll read any genre they write in. I do trust the author to tell a story, even if how she/he tells it leaves me with a big WTF.

    Oh, and I know you love Pride and Prejudice . . . have you ever seen Bride and Prejudice? And there’s a really good film, which you can watch on YouTube, called Lost in Austen—it twists the P&P tale very nicely.

  5. erika says:

    I’m glad you brought up this discussion. I am a huge Jennifer Crusie fan. I’ve read all of her stand alone books plus her co-authored books with Bob Mayer and her anthology (is that right?) books. I was at her blog the other day and excited to see that she is writing a new solo book. As I was slugging along all the entries I realized that her new book is not a romance. Imagine my surprise. Her cherries (aka her beta readers I believe) think that it’ll be okay, that her readers will love her stuff no matter what genre it is. I disagree, I think readers are fickle and they have pretty high expectations.

    I just realized I’m totally off subject from your question. *headdesk* sorry.

    I’ll stick with a story through thick and thin just so I can see how it ends.

  6. Julie says:

    Stacy: An interesting question is whether an ending like Romeo & Juliet could ever work today…?

    I don’t know– maybe The Help will have a happy ending. There’s definitely some humor in the book– maybe the sense of foreboding is just to keep readers on their toes.

    Elyssa: “pull a Margaret Mitchell.” Love that. I have been meaning to get to The Lovely Bones forever. A friend of mine is reading it right now– I’ll have to borrow it when she’s done.

    I have seen both Bride and Prejudice and Lost in Austen. Actually, I just watched Lost in Austen last week, based on a recommendation I saw on a blog. I thought it was too cute and enjoyed it.

  7. Julie says:

    No– you’re right on topic, Erika! I can’t comment too much on Jennifer Crusie since I’ve only read one of her books (and I know I need to rectify that, especially since I really loved Bet Me), but I think what a situation like that comes down to is marketing. Meaning, make sure the readers know that a book is different in tone from the others, so that they can decide whether they’re up for that new tone or not. But what do I know? 😉

  8. erika says:

    You picked a good one for your first Crusie read. Bet Me is my all time favorite, followed very very closely by Agnes and the Hitman.

  9. Venus Vaughn says:

    I read 80% romance, so I expect everything to turn out all right in the end. That’s it. I am okay with however the author chooses to get me there, but when I close the book, I want the characters that I invested so much (reading) time in to be better and happier at the end. (And alive)

    What makes me put down a book has a lot more to do with craft than with the author taking a hard left when I was expecting a slow curve to the right.

  10. Julie says:

    Erika: Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll have to add Agnes and the Hitman to the list if it’s anywhere near as entertaining as Bet Me.

    Venus: yes, agreed– particularly in a romance, the main characters better be alive at the end. Luckily, it’s rare for the protagonist to be killed off at the end, in any story. Because it’s tough, when you’ve come to care for the character… That said, I’ve seen it done, and done well, in a book that divided the chapters between two female protagonists. Big-time tears on my part over that one.

  11. Venus Vaughn says:

    Oh yeah, definitely add Agnes & The Hitman to your list. Her first collaboration with that author wasn’t nearly as tight, but that one hit all the high notes.

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