First impressions are crucial. The prologue of a book can be as effective as a handshake, both for better and for worse. This column will just explore the literary overtures that set the tone for some of the most recent books released, including some reviewed in the New York Times Book Review.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
The Premise: Paula McLain delves into the rich and wild marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, as he writes The Sun Also Rises in Paris.
First Impression: Written from
Hadley’s perspective, she reflects on their now-distant life in Paris. She isn’t bitter – their union was a Parisian dream. But as Hadley warns reluctantly in the prologue, “Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything.” The introduction is just tinged with Hemingway’s style. It’s as if Hadley picked up Ernest’s knack for long, rambling sentences (or maybe he picked it up from her). In the first chapter, she relishes how she first encountered Ernest’s wit and good looks in a pleasantly intoxicated state. “I close my eyes and lean into Ernest, smelling bourbon and soap, tobacco and damp cotton — and everything about this moment is so sharp and lovely, I do something completely out of character and just let myself have it.”
The Takeaway: McLain shows promise; her style will capture the bright and volatile jazz-age Paris as it envelops the couple. Perfect if you’re looking for an evocative tale of romance, ambition, and betrayal.
Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood by Charlotte Silver
The Premise: Author Charlotte Silver recalls her childhood spent at her perfectionist mother’s confectionery and restaurant, Upstairs at the Pudding, a crowd favorite for the eclectic Cambridge, MA community.
First Impression: While the book’s presentation and setting is charming, Silver’s prologue is elementary and shallow. She makes the amateur mistake of telling, not showing; her first chapter jumps from one event to another without much connectivity or purpose. Her mother’s pastel-pink aesthetic and candied menu is certainly mouthwatering, but her characterization so far is bland and shallow. Granted, the restaurant’s connections with Harvard’s Hast Pudding Club and its cast of academic characters is interesting. The Krokodiloes, an a capella group that performs frequently at Upstairs at the Pudding, parallel the sugar-coated façade of the restaurant. And, according to the inside flap, financial troubles loom in the distance for the Silvers, so this may provide an opportunity for development and drama. I suspect her youth at this point of the book prevents Silver from digging deep or forming deep relationships between her characters.
The Takeaway: Unfortunately, Silver spends her first chapter on a slew of prettily clad, coiffed childhood memories. The title of the book tells it all; at first glance, this novel belongs more in a truffle box than a bookshelf.
Boat by Charlotte Rogan
Boat by Charlotte Rogan
The Premise: Newlywed Grace Winter’s husband didn’t make it onto the lifeboat after their ship, the Empress Alexandra,
sunk in 1914. She now faces charges for murder at sea
First Impression: Charlotte Rogan introduces Grace dancing madly in the rain back in New York City. She’s under suspicion for murder at sea, but as Rogan starts up the flashbacks, the desperate situation forces the readers to ask themselves if they would really be so altruistic themselves. How someone could be held accountable for a life amid the brutality and chaos described in Chapter One is beyond Grace’s comprehension. The effects of life boat 14 have not yet left her system. She stands in the middle of the street with her mouth wide open to accept the rain, while her lawyers look on in a mix of horror and delight. An insanity plea might be the only thing to save her case.
The Takeaway: In the midst of the Titanic’s 100-year anniversary, this seems to be a great psychological read. Rogan is a prolific writer and this story promises to be intricate and intriguing.
Imagine by Jonah Lehrer
Premise: Jonah Lehrer wants to pry the top off the creative process and extract the mindset and circumstances in which the mind can be the most creative.
First Impressions: Lehrer opens with the case example of Proctor and Gamble and their struggle to reinvent the mop. With the Continuum designers came an epiphany, the Swiffer. “That insight changed floor cleaning forever.” Lehrer uses this example to explicate both the roadblocks and joys of the creative process. He claims the creative process isn’t some enigma left only to those with ample creative talent. “Creativity … should not be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’” Lehrer writes clearly and with the same informed tone as Malcolm Gladwell. A good read for those whose relationship with their right brain is on the rocks or even nonexistent.
The Takeaway: This book will explore theoretically the neurobiological and environmental influences on the imagination, individual and dynamic creativity.