Chapter One: Again

A while ago–huh, quite a while ago!–I wrote a couple of posts on the first chapters of books I was reading, and the invitation/promise they offer to the reader. It’s time to do it again–for Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Again.

I teach a three-hour class on Friday afternoons and get home exhausted. Last night, none of the books I tried was engaging my tired brain. I couldn’t focus. So I picked up Again, which Janine Ballard loaned me.

By the end of Chapter One, I had added “order a used copy” to my Saturday to-do list (done!). Everyone I know who has read this book loves it, and I can already tell I will, too. Why the hell has’t Penguin made it digitally available?

It just so happens that we started discussion of our first novel (Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse) in class yesterday. This included a discussion of Freytag’s model of plot structure, among others, of foreshadowing and how you can spot it, and of Ch. 1 as exposition/introduction/a mystery to be solved/a promise the book must fulfill. So I was primed to pay attention to these things in Again. 

The setting for Seidel’s novel is a Regency daytime soap (and like many others, I so wish this were a real thing); the hero, Alec, is an actor, and the heroine, Jenny, is the head writer.

The main thing that struck me was how much exposition–aka “telling”–there was in this “expositional” chapter. It broke the rule about starting with action (the opening is really not a scene at all). But it still engrossed me, in part because one of the conflicts is clear from the first page, on which we learn through snippets of dialogue that Jenny has argued for hiring Alec to play a Duke on My Lady’s Chamber against the objections of her colleagues, including her actor boyfriend. “Why are you so sure?” Brian asks. “I like his eyes,” Jenny responds. Oh, there’s so clearly a world of trouble ahead, isn’t there, for both Jenny and Alec. When a writer successfully breaks a “rule” right at the start, I feel confident I’m in good hands.

Much of the rest of the first chapter is backstory (also supposedly a no-no): we learn that Alec was fired from a disastrous soap he starred in. He’s been doing other work (a film, voice-overs) but he loves soaps and is thrilled to be back on one. He’s got an unjustified reputation as a trouble-maker from his last job and knows he needs to live it down:

His agent had warned him to be careful. “Everyone will be watching you,” she had said. “Stop at the water fountain, and someone will say that you’re being difficult.”

This really stank, that he should have to be so careful at this point in his career. But that was the way things were. No point in pretending otherwise.

I can imagine the comments now if this kind of thing showed up as one of Dear Author‘s first page posts: don’t just dump all this on readers right away, weave it in later, etc. But it works. It works because we learn so much about Alec’s character from the way he thinks about his situation–he tried everything to get Aspen on track, he has a strong sense of responsibility, he loves and respects soap operas and understands what makes them good. This is all backstory, yes, but also deft characterization.

The rest of Chapter One is Alec’s first day on the job, and we get a ton of information about how soaps work. This chapter reminded me of the Dick Francis books I enjoyed recently: we have a character who loves his job and wants to do it well, and this is a big part of his charm. And we learn fascinating details about that job.

Even if a reader didn’t find the details interesting in and of themselves, I think they’re made interesting by Alec’s attitude to them. This never feels like “as you know, Bob” info-dumping, something a character wouldn’t be noticing or remarking on, because Alec is re-familiarizing himself with the soap routine after being out of it for a while. And because he’s the new guy and knows he’s being watched, he’s alert to all the nuances of behavior, all the possible pitfalls of working with these people. Here’s the very end of the chapter, after Alec has observed Brian challenge Jenny’s script direction in a read-through (something that is more professionally done in private, and certainly could have been given their personal relationship):

Well, well. Alec picked up his styrofoam coffee cup. His interest was now thoroughly engaged. Here was a cast which needed to believe that they were happy, a head writer who was pretending she was Huck Finn, and a boyfriend who had something to prove to someone. This was going to be one interesting place to work.

My interest is thoroughly engaged too. A hero who loves his work, who’s responsible, perceptive, smart and attuned to emotional cues? Yes, please! I’m looking forward to Jenny’s point of view and to watching these two smart, hard-working people get together. But I’d read on even if it weren’t a romance, just to see Alec figuring out his work life.

Did I have any niggles? Well, I did find the way Alec thinks about his beautiful ex-wife, the effort she took to maintain her perfection, and Jenny’s refreshingly “tomboy” style annoyingly romance-clichéd, but no one’s perfect.

Finally, I found Alec’s thoughts about what makes a soap work to be an excellent explanation of genre fiction (in a roundabout way). He gets that it matters to give people conventions done right, the familiar with a difference. Here’s Alec trying to save the bomb that is Aspen: 

Get back to the basics, he urged [the head writer]. Characters that viewers care about, stories that touch the heart. And families, please give us some families. Mothers, grandfathers, unknown half-sisters, adopted third cousins, anything.

My Lady’s Chamber shakes soap conventions up with a new setting, but tells family stories. It’s both familiar and fresh. After Chapter One, I think Seidel’s book is going to provide the same.

All right, back to Again! I needed a book to fall in love with.

 

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20 Responses to Chapter One: Again

  1. Miss Bates says:

    Isn’t it just the loveliest to read that first chapter of a book and know that it promises satisfaction, that you’ve encountered a sensibility in sympathy with your own?

  2. So glad you are liking it! I had a feeling Seidel would appeal to you. I like Alec a lot, but my favorite character in the book was Jennie. I look forward to hearing what you think of her.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Now that I’m about half-way (can’t put it down!) I can say that I really like Jenny, too. I feel that Alec’s point of view has been more prevalent in the book–which is somewhat unusual–but I haven’t really confirmed that that’s the case and not just my impression.

      • There’s more I’d love to say about my favorite aspect of Jenny but I don’t want to spoil my favorite part of the book if you haven’t gotten to it yet. If you let me know when you’ve finished, I’ll email you about it.

        But I will say, another favorite aspect of Jenny for me, and one that isn’t a spoiler, is that she lived together with Brian for so long. My husband and I lived together for sixteen years before we got married, and I recall reading Again during that time. I was so happy to stumble on a book where the heroine had lived with her boyfriend for a long time, because I’d never seen that in a romance before — it was like living together was taboo for the main characters.

        Seidel’s characters feel so real to me because of details like that one. She also reminds me a bit of Judith Ivory (although their prose styles and even their characters couldn’t be more dissimilar) because they both write deeply psychological books. I often feel in Seidel’s books,that the characters are figuring each other out, solving puzzles, and I love that.

        Seidel is also the reason I resisted when you suggested that my lack of affinity to Sarah Mayberry’s book (the one with the dogs — I’ve forgotten the title) might be due to the book not being angsty enough. Seidel’s books are quiet and for the most part, not at all angsty (there might be a couple of exceptions) but I adore almost all of them. In fact I’d say they’re quieter than the vast majority of romances — yet there is always something going on under the character’s calm and competent surfaces. I just love how she does that. She’s my favorite author of contemporaries.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I know what you mean about the Mayberry book, having finished this. There is more, or more realistic, conflict in AGAIN. And a different writer, with different characters, could have made this a highly agnsty, emotional book–so much potential for guilt and self-castigation and drama. But tons of that totally wouldn’t fit these characters, who are either avoiders of conflict or honest and direct, and who just get on and *do* when they are miserable instead of moping.

          It’s an interesting contrast to the “exposition”/cartographic element of the book, actually. Because there is a lot of telling you what is going on (though this makes sense with the charcters–both Alec and Jenny’s job and their lives have made them observant and emotionally intelligent) but there is not a lot of directing you how to feel, which I do feel about some “high angst” books. They are kind of intellectualizers of their emotions, I guess. Which I am too. The restraint, the fact that the *writing* isn’t highly emotional, leaves the reader to fill in the emotions for herself, and I often feel *more* about such books than about books where the characters and/or writing are highly emotional.

  3. SonomaLass says:

    I must read this. I was a soap opera watcher for many years, going so far as to contemplate a book comparing the genre to the popular theatre of the 19th centuriy (my academic specialty). As a theatre practitioner, I was fascinated by the hard work of doing a new script every day, as well as the acting challenge of playing the same character for years, in different situations and relationships (totally different from a long run of a play). There was some fine acting, not to mention a willingness to engage difficult rekationship questions and social issues, on the soaps of the late 20th century. (And now I feel old.)

    I haven’t read much Seidel, precisely because so few of her books are digitally available. I hear such good things! Alas, my library system is of little use.

    • Miss Bates says:

      Don’t feel old, or rather let’s be old together. 😉 Miss Bates watched ANOTHER WORLD and THE GUIDING LIGHT for years and years and loved every minute of them. As a child of European immigrants, Miss Bates listened to her parents and their friends tackle and learn English from the soaps’ storylines … don’t know about their notions of American lives, though! Now, the soaps are like the Delphic Oracle when St. Paul hit Greek shores, “apothanin thelo” (“I want to die”).

      (I’m going to second Liz to say that I wish this novel were available digitally!)

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I was saying yesterday that if I were a Big 5 publisher, I’d have an intern checking in on places like Amazon romance forums or All About Romance’s boards to see what older books were beloved/much discussed. I can’t believe it took them so long to digitize Gaffney’s Wyckerley trilogy, for instance. I don’t think these books are a gold mine, probably, but they would surely make a profit. There was never more proof that readers aren’t their customer and that they’re out of touch with what readers are talking about.

        My daytime soap watching was all in college–first year I lived on a hall with a group of GENERAL HOSPITAL fans and we’d get together and watch at least a few days a week; later, I watched some GUIDING LIGHT with a friend. I guess I’m old, too.

        • Miss Bates says:

          Yes, I’ve often had that thought about publishers re: certain titles and their “unavailability.” But then I don’t really understand that whole business aspect of anything, much less publishing. It just seems to me that what you’re saying makes sense: making a book available digitally can’t be as costly as paper and it would turn a profit. I also think that, as a reader, I’m wiling to pay more for a book I’ve been wanting to read for years. I did so for the Wyckerley books and didn’t regret it at all.

          Well. Old. GUIDING LIGHT had its start on the radio and we certainly didn’t listen to it then … !! I’m a television baby and that old screen still has the power to mesmerize me. Just the other day, I was glued watching ARROW and SCANDAL, even though I’d wanted to catch the news.

      • The boring explanation for this book not being available digitally is probably contractual. In 1994 digital rights weren’t mentioned and, depending on the wording, the publishers may not be able to exploit unnamed rights. It would be very nice for us (and make some money for Ms. Seidel) if she could self publish her books digitally. She may not be interested. I know that publishers *are* combing their backlists and reissuing everything they can. It’s money in the bank, even without huge sales.

        And yes please to the Regency soap opera.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Janine e-mailed her and she said she only has rights to her categories and is talking to her agent about self-publishing those. So it sounds like we are relying on Penguin/Onyx for others.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think it’s really interesting on the challenges of such a show for actors and writers, and also on how the various characters deal with working in a field that’s so denigrated. The way that Alec comes to understand and embody his character (who is unpleasant and not at all like him) is interesting, though I’d say there’s more on the whole process of the show than on acting per se. You’d really like it, I think. When I get my own copy, I could lend it to you!

    • I watched General Hospital for years and for a shorter span of time, All My Children and One Life to Live. I think there was some very fine storytelling and acting on General Hospital when Claire Labine was the head writer there (this was in the 1990s). It quickly went downhill after the powers that be got rid of her though, and eventually I stopped watching.

      SonomaLass, I think you would love this book, although Seidel’s exposition heavy writing style doesn’t appeal to every reader. When Rachel Potter was reviewing at AAR, she once described Seidel’s writing style as cartographic, and said that Seidel draws her readers a map. I thought that was a very apt description.

  4. SonomaLass says:

    *relationship questions. Sheesh.

  5. Sunita says:

    Hah! I knew it! How could you *not* love it? It’s really one of the best romances ever. It blends all these aspects of our favorite novels and makes something entirely fresh out of them.

    I started watching soaps with my grandmother, when we first came to the US and I kept watching for decades. For me, they’re intertwined with reading romance novels, so maybe that’s why I love this book so much. Nah, it’s just an excellent, excellent, romance. I think it should be in every conversion kit.

    Now I want to read it again, immediately!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, it’s one of those (almost) perfect books that feels like it was written just for me! It’s been ages since I raced through a book in a couple of days. And I was right to order my own copy.

  6. pamela1740 says:

    Hmm, once again thanks to blogging friends a contemporary romance is jumping out at me in a way I can tell will pay off with a good read. The daytime drama setting is irresistible – and a REGENCY soap??!!? How perfectly pitched to captivate those lovers of the histrom among us. 😉
    When I was in high school I scheduled my free period for the end of the day so I could get home in time for General Hospital. I probably watched GH and All My Children until I started having to work fulltime (and couldn’t figure out how to set the VCR).

  7. Kathryn says:

    Mayberry I believe has written for the Australian soap, Neighbors and she wrote a soap opera trilogy: Take on Me, All Over You, and Hot for Him, published in the Harlequin Blaze line. The heroines are all part of the same soap production team (2 of them work on members of the writing team, one is a producer); the heroes are also involved in soap operas – ones a writer, one a past actor returning to the soap, and the third a producer of a rival soap opera.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes! I was going to mention this and then my post was already tl;dr. I read Take on Me and enjoyed it, and I believe I have the others in the massive TBR. I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes soap stuff there, too.

  8. First chapters are so important. If a book doesn’t grab me in that chapter I will rarely persist. I am particularly taken by No Names No Jackets http://www.nonamesnojackets.com/ Book discovery without the bias of paratexts.

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