"HG: You are known as a great defender of the nineteenth-century, particularly the words of Dickens and Thomas Hardy. What virtues do you find there that you feel are missing in contemporary fiction, and which contemporary novelists do you think fulfill -- or come closest to fulling -- these virtues?
JI: Thomas Hardy insisted that a novel had to be a better story than something you might happen upon in a newspaper. He meant "better" in every way: bigger, more complex, more connected, and also having a kind of symmetry or closure -- even achieving a kind of justice, or at least an inevitability, in the end.
George Eliot, too -- and of course Dickens. Their novels were *designed*. David Copperfield once remarked that he found real life a whole lot messier than he expected to find it. Modernism in literature upholds the theory that a novel can be a patternless mess (without a plot) because real life is like that. Well, good novels, in my view, are better made than real life.
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier - oh my. This has hooked me in the very first chapter. Can we say Haunting, Foreboding, Boldly Foreshadowing?!??? Daphne du Maurier is best-known for her gothic Cornish novel, Rebecca; and I dare to suggest that My Cousin Rachel is every bit as good as, and perhaps the superior to, Rebecca. The toxicity of jealousy, the power of love to blind (for "the heart controls the body. and the mind."), the lies we tell ourselves to justify our beliefs/actions, the arrogance of youth ... it's all here. And it's sooooo good.
The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma - I'm not a non-fiction reader. It's just not my preferred genre. Like John Irving brilliantly put-words-to (top of this post), I like my stories to be better than newspaper accounts; I like a book to be bigger, better, more complex, with symmetry and closure ... architecture! But, if you don't have this hang-up like I do, and you like sweet, well-told memoirs written by someone with whom you have no acquaintance (but feel like you "know" by the end of the book), then The Reading Promise may totally delight you. As a bonus, the battle cry of this book is: "... a promise to remember the power of the printed word, to take time to cherish it, to protect it at all costs ... the life-changing ability literature can have ..."
A Widow for One Year by John Irving - It used to be that I always gave a book the benefit of doubt and read to the end even if it started kinda "icky". As I've gotten older, I have less patience (and more discernment, I like to think) with books. I will often abandon a book 50-100 pages in (if not poorly written), or even just a mere chapter in (if poorly written). Then there's this book and this conundrum: it definitely starts icky and quickly gets ickier. As a reader, I hope that the "icky" is merely the background against which the narrative will play. But, no; the icky remains. And the whole atmosphere feels so completely morally bankrupt. But. John Irving is a fantastic writer. In some ways, he seems to me like a modern-day "classic novelist" akin to Dickens or Eliot or Hardy. He can definitely vividly develop a story and a place and people it with non-cardboard characters. Which leaves me wanting to know where he's taking the icky and whether there's going to be anything redeemable about the lives of his book's people or the story. I didn't quit this one. But I probably should have. Despite the last 6-ish lines being genius, I really kind of felt like I needed to wash my brain out from the rest.