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.