I’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.
I 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.
Loving 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.