When talking about books at work last week, I realized that there are three types of fiction: books that focus primarily on character development, books that are driven by the plot, and books that balance both cast and storyline.
It might seem obvious to others, but I think back to all the books I abandoned a third of the way through because I was not enjoying them, and it’s likely because I didn’t know 1) which of these three categories of fiction works I prefer and 2) which category the books I had picked up fit into.
What made me think of this is a book I’d finished the day before, The Water Cure, and how disappointed I felt with it by the end. While summarizing the plot to a coworker, I recognized that I had picked out the book based on the description and thought it would be a page-turner, heavily carried by plot. It’s not that kind of book, however, and I kept anticipating the storyline to ramp up while discrediting some seriously unique character development. I felt let down because I was reading the book for how I wanted it to be, rather than accepting it for how it is.
I’ll keep this in mind from now on as I make selections for myself and recommend books to others. Since my three most recent reads fit in these categories nicely, I’ve left some simple descriptions:
A Book About Characters
The Water Cure, Sophie Mackintosh (2019)
As shared above, I expected this to be a book about plot. I sensed strong dystopian themes from the description and was thrilled to dive in and learn why the sisters were captives on an island. Instead, Mackintosh indulges in an evocative, unclear, stream-of-consciousness style from two of the three sisters’ points-of-view. Their perspective and growth is the main hook of this novel, not any outside action. That might mean not every reader will find it palatable, but I credit Mackintosh for her unique and experimental work.
A Book That Focuses on Plot
The Power, Naomi Alderman (2017)
I read this book in March and appreciated Alderman’s intelligent form immediately. She carries her story — a tale in which women across the globe realize they have the power to emit painful electricity through their palms and how it affects their relationships, societies, and governments — through intense detail. In fact, she positions the novel as if we are reading a historical text (taking us back through women’s first discovery of this power to “present day,” when social castes have dramatically shifted as a result). This story is the main weightlifter, carrying the cast of protagonists with it.
A Book That Delivers Characters and Plot
The Farm, Joanne Ramos (2019)
I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) of this book through my work, and have read half of it in a week’s time. I find it to be a compulsively good read. Ramos delivers an intriguing storyline (a ‘Farm’ where typically immigrant and low-income women spend nine months sheltered from their former physical labor to be surrogates for the world’s one-percent most wealthy) and a cast of multi-dimensional characters. An additional hook I feel adds depth to the novel is it’s overarching theme of inequality: Ramos deftly highlights upper-middle class women’s misunderstandings of the sacrifices their immigrant caretakers make in order to simplify their lives. Similarly, the surrogates at the Farm submit themselves to extensive time apart from family, including their own children, to provide an extraordinary convenience to their ultra-wealthy clients (not all of whom have trouble conceiving, but instead opt for surrogacy for “aesthetic reasons”). Ramos deftly balances both her characters and the story well.
[I was not paid to write about these works. Links are not affiliate.]