Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow Paperbacks, $13.99, 320 pages)
Yeah we were desperate then/ To have each other to hold/ But love is a long, long road. Tom Petty
Full and proper character development appears to be becoming a lost art in fiction, but author Christina Baker Kline does her bit to revive the art in the intriguing novel Bird in Hand. This is a fine story, extremely well told, of four people, partners in two marriages and very good friends. We get to know all four characters and hear their stories – from their own perspectives – in this well-constructed tale.
The narrative begins with Alison whose life seems to be virtually perfect until two things happen. First, she becomes involved in a deadly accident while under the influence and the ramifications of this threaten to tear her world apart. Second is something that she’s completely unaware of, which is that her husband is having an affair with someone she considered a friend. Thus, her world changes overnight: “For Alison, now, the world was a different place, and yet it was strangely the same. She was present and not present in her own life.”
Kline writes with the same cool, suburban angst filled tone as Richard Ford (Independence Day, The Sportswriter). There’s a question that is asked in Ford’s writing and in a Talking Heads song: How did I get here? “She walked around the silent house and looked at the framed photographs that lined the mantelpiece and cluttered the bookshelves, wondering, Is this really my life? This collage of frozen moments, frozen in time.”
In Bird in Hand, we also meet Charlie, Alison’s steady if unfaithful husband; Claire, the newly published author and friend of Alison’s; and Ben, Charlie’s successful if somewhat dull and introverted husband. It’s rare to find a work in which all four characters are so well fleshed out and, yes, real. Here’s an example in how Alison describes Charlie: “…as they started talking she realized that there was… something in his character that she couldn’t put down. He wasn’t cocky, and his humor was gentle. He had a mild confidence, a lack of self-consciousness, an ironic take on the world that wasn’t caustic or bitter. Despite his social ease, he had a solitary air.”
At one point, Charlie describes Claire in words that could apply to the author’s style in writing this novel. “She could be formal one moment and irreverent, even crude, the next.”
“Real life, she knew, was just beginning.”
One of the ironies of reading Bird in Hand is that its fictional account of the disintegration of a marriage feels far more true to life than two contemporary nonfiction accounts: How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed by Theo Pauline Nestor and Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies. I much preferred Nestor’s account but neither narrator seemed as true to me as the character Alison in Kline’s work.
It may be because Kline gives us not just a story, but the motivations that spur on the individuals. With Alison, it’s disillusionment. “Nothing about her life at the moment was what she’d envisioned for herself when she got married.” Alison’s husband Charlie is moved by the feeling that he’s made the wrong choices for himself. “He was doing this because he could not keep skimming along the surface of his life without one day crashing into something hard and unpleasant… he was convinced he would get only one chance to feel this kind of passion, to express it, to live.”
And then Kline reveals that motivation, intent, means little or nothing because all humans act with incomplete – flawed – knowledge (quoting Alice McDermott): “As if… what was actual, as opposed to what was imagined, as opposed to what was believed, made, when you got right down to it, any difference at all.” So, ultimately, this is an impressive work about real, flawed, individuals doing the best they can at a certain point in their existence, making mistakes but ultimately moving forward. “It was real life, the way things should be, and even as it was happening it felt to Alison like a distant memory, the moment already slipping into the past.”
A great deal of praise should be bestowed on author Kline for creating characters that adult readers can relate to. At one point in Bird in Hand, Kline writes of Alison’s experiences as a young woman, “It was a strange and magical feeling.” Kline has delivered a strange, unique, magical and borderline brilliant story.
A review (hardbound) copy was provided by William Morrow.
Sequels and Prequels
“If you introduce a character that’s already familiar to somebody they have a vested interest.” Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Watermark Books
One of the pleasurable facets of reading modern popular fiction is that once you discover an author (and it’s more likely to be a she than a he), you can read her earlier works and/or plan to read her future releases. Once we arrive at a place of comfort with an author, we hope and presume that we will feel the same about separate works by that writer. Generally each work will be separate, except when the author of fiction decides to create a series around a character, which is when we wind up with sequels and prequels.
The author who decides to extend a character’s life into a continuing series has a few minefields to deal with. One is that people like continuity until they get tired of it. Think of a new rock band with a successful initial CD. Let’s call this band the Purple Onion (PO). Everyone loved PO’s first album, Single Whammy, so when they release their follow-up album, Double Whammy, their fans are thrilled that it retains their “trademark sound.” But what happens when Triple Whammy is released? PO is then likely to be beaten up by both the critics and formerly rabid fans who say that they’ve become stuck in one place and have displayed little or no growth as musical artists. (If Triple Whammy sounds nothing like the first two CDs, they are likely to get hammered for a different reason – for arbitrarily changing their style.)
An author faces the same issues in building a series of novels around a single character. One example is Sarah Paretsky who has written for many years about the crusty Chicago-based detective V. I. Warshawsky. Paretsky was praised for writing several “V. I.” books until some critics felt that the lead character had changed too much in later novels. (Was V. I. getting soft?) Her latest effort in the series was praised for being more like the original “V. I.” books. Get back, V. I., back to where you once belonged!
So there’s a bend but do not break aspect to fashioning a lead character. He or she must stay the same yet must evolve and grow the way most humans do in their own lives. Suddenly the idea of hanging onto a main character doesn’t sound so easy, does it?
There’s also the fact that some readers may view the author as getting lazy, or feel that she/he is not challenging herself/himself enough. What does one get out of writing about the same character(s) all of the time, except maybe a relatively safe source of income? What about stretching oneself as an artist, a writer, by taking on new themes and styles? This tends to be a valid critique, but only to a point. That’s because authors like Richard Ford and John Updike wrote several books structured around a single character and both series were well-recognized with journalism’s highest awards.
The lesson here is that some skilled authors can write about the same character repeatedly and make it not only interesting but fascinating. The key word, though, is skill.
Novels in a continuing fictional series based on a lead character tend to be sequels, but on occasion a writer decides to fashion a prequel. This is a novel that deals with events that precede, rather than follow, the author’s introduction of a lead character. In my view, prequels are much harder to write well because the mind of the average reader does not deal well with a character’s pre-introduction life…
Let’s say that I read a novel featuring detective L. A. Jones. When I read the first book in which L. A. Jones appears he’s in his early forties. If I finish this book and pick up the second in the series eighteen months later, it does not bother me that L. A. is now in his mid to late-forties; this seems natural. But if I pick up the third book in the series and see that it deals with L. A. when he was a young man in his teens and twenties, it seems odd and hard to follow. The mind tends to ask, “Why did the author do this? I’m not interested in the character’s life before I knew (encountered) him!”
Yes, prequels can work in extending the life of a successful film or TV series, but that’s a bit different. Fans of Star Trek, for example, so desperately wanted the series to continue in some form that they eventually learned to accept a prequel version. But, when it comes to prequels in popular fiction, the words sung by Ringo Starr would seem to apply – “It don’t come easy.”
The take away point may be that an author who has developed a popular character would seem to have climbed on board the gravy train, and he/she would seem to be crazy to abandon that character. But the public is extremely fickle about characters they’ve come to know and love. These characters must stay the same while changing, but not too much so.
Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is with the author who fails to change his lead character enough. One of the most critical and deadly comments is one that can often be found at Amazon. It goes something like this, “I LOVED Joe Blow’s books about detective L. A. Jones and I bought every one! But this book, the 17th in the series, stinks! Joe Blow should have killed off detective Jones before now. Blow’s now writing on automatic pilot, and these books are now nothing if not repetitive and boring.”
A fan of an author can go from loyalist to attack dog in an instant. Woe to the author who creates a continuing character and lets that character over stay his/her welcome! Better to let the character leave the stage a bit too early rather than far too late.
Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review. This article is one in a continuing series.
Pictured: Innocent, the sequel to Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow; the sequel released 20 years after the original.
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