Sunday, April 23, 2006

Shari Goldhagen’s Inspiring Debut Novel

This is a “writing” entry, although there are certainly plenty of well-written sex scenes in Shari Goldhagen’s debut novel/linked short stories, Family and Other Accidents. (Not much food though—only Asian takeout and salmonella.) This is a sort of embarrassing admission, but I haven’t been reading that many novels in the past few years, probably because I write short stories and focus on that genre, plus these days memoirs and other nonfiction just grab my attention more. But I was intrigued by Rachel Kramer Bussel’s review of Family on her blog and her interview with Goldhagen in The Gothamist. And, since I am writing a novel now, the question of what makes a good one is more personally pressing than ever before.

Well, I was totally blown away by this novel! Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. It has so many qualities I hope for in my own writing: very real characters who stay with you long after you stop reading; sharp, witty insights into the human condition; clean, lovely, I-wanna-write-that-way prose; and an enviable balance of page-turning drama with literary attention to detail and language that makes this worth a second or a third read to appreciate Goldhagen’s skills. I just know I’m going to be picking this up when I’m in a writing funk for some inspiration to get back on track.

I’m not sure why Jack and Connor and Mona and Laine and the rest seem to have moved into my brain so that I can analyze them and love them and hate them like members of my own family, but they have and that’s the magic of good fiction. Some of it might be the insight into the Midwest—I’m a neurotic East Coaster who married a guy from Chicago and the culture is definitely different in America’s heartland. Some of it might be that I have a controlling older sibling like Jack and my father died when I was young and a lot of that part rings true. Certainly part of it is that I’ve always found love and sex and all the silly things they make us do mysterious (I know I’m definitely not alone in that) and this novel tackles those issues with intelligence and humor.

Style-wise there was a lot to learn, too. I knew I’d like this book when I saw the chapter titles: “stealing condoms from joe jr.’s room,” “the only pregnant girlfriend he ever married,” “the way he said ‘putz.’” The shifting POV’s allowed for so many “aha” moments—Ah hah, that’s what he was really thinking in the last chapter—which is somehow very satisfying for a reader. I also admired the way Goldhagen brought her themes full circle in the last chapter to create a satisfying ending without tying the story into a contrived conclusion. It was also cool to learn a bit about the genesis of the novel from Rachel’s interview I’ve linked to above. The first story Goldhagen wrote with some of the characters became chapter four, not a standout chapter on first reading, but that is how things work sometimes in the creative process. I recently wrote a story that I can feel wants to become a novel and now I’m letting the characters and images simmer away in my mind on my early morning walks, which is the longest and probably most enjoyable part of the creative process for me.

I can only hope any novel I write will be half as good as Family and Other Accidents.

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