– Rob Thomas, Little Wonders
There is a bookcase at one end of my living room. I refer to as my “keeper shelf” and were you to visit me (I hope you do!) you would find a motley assortment of novels. I keep my Harry Potter collection beside The Chronicles of Narnia. They’re not so different after all, full of magic and wonder and whimsy. I have Ann Patchett and L.M. Montgomery and Neil Gaiman. Kate DiCamillo. Marilyn Robinson. Leif Enger. Somehow The Book Thief and The Glass Castle ended up on the same shelf as a five-book collection by P.G. Wodehouse (bought, I might add, at a rambling bookstore owned by Larry McMurtry). A dusty and tattered edition of The Princess and the Goblin is held together by a rubber band and sits on the shelf farthest away from my curious toddler. It’s the copy my mother read to me as a child and I’d sooner give birth to a hippo than part with it. The Thirteenth Tale. Water for Elephants. The Night Circus. The Kite Runner. The Hunger Games. The Help. Watership Down. I own almost every novel written by Dick Francis and George MacDonald.
This collection of stories evokes something in me that I find difficult to express. It’s not uncommon for me to pass my bookshelf, run my fingers along the spines, and close my eyes. I summon the emotions I felt the first time I read them. Sometimes I even pull one from its spot and read a passage. I did this yesterday with The Time Travelers Wife:
“The curve of her shoulders, the stiffness in her posture say here is someone who is very tired, and I am very tired, myself. I shift my weight from one foot to the other and the floor creaks; the woman turns and sees me and her face is remade into joy; I am suddenly amazed; this is Clare, Clare old! And she is coming to me, so slowly, and I take her into my arms.”Three years later and I don’t remember much of the plot, but I do remember how I wept my way through the last 50 pages. Audrey Niffenegger broke my heart and then patched it together with that last scene. My devotion for her novel is irrational.
For me, redemption is synonymous with The Kite Runner. I was quiet when I finished Khaled Hosseini’s stunning debut. I sat, book laid open in my lap, and felt something akin to worship—not for the author, but for the pure joy of seeing that kite lift into the air, and for what it meant:
“It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn’t make everything all right. It didn’t make anything all right. Only a smile. A tiny thing. A leaf in the woods, shaking in the wake of a startled bird’s flight. But I’ll take it. With open arms. Because when spring comes, it melts snow one flake at a time, and maybe I just witnessed the first flake melting.”
Every book on that shelf moved me. Sometimes to laughter. Sometimes to tears. I have felt rage and empathy and grief. I’ve even fallen in love a time or two. Yet I’d be hard pressed to synopsize any of my favorite novels. Character and Plot and Setting and Theme slip away with time. But I can pull any book from that shelf, dust off the cover, flip to a favorite passage and tell you exactly how it made me feel. And really, that’s all that matters in the end.
Question for you: what is it that you hope your reader’s feel when they’ve finished your novel? Can you describe, in a word, what the last novel you read made you feel?