DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Jul 9 2010

ShareReads: Find a New Favorite!

by ShareReads

ShareReads appears on the DCPLive blog on Fridays. Each week, a different person will share a little about what they’re currently reading, and why they like or don’t like it. The heart of ShareReads will be responses from blog readers, and the window of opportunity here is wide. Feel free to respond and discuss the book or author being mentioned, ask or answer a question, or even take the conversation in a different direction: mention what you are currently reading, and how you feel about it. The point of ShareReads is to have an ongoing discussion about books and reading. Remember: posting a response also counts as an activity for the Summer Reading for Adults program.

Many of us have had the experience of reading a book that, long after it is over, we can’t seem to shake. The characters stick with us, the surprising plot twist at the end keeps popping up in our mind, the beauty of the writing compels us to seek out something of equal quality. I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson for my monthly book club earlier in the spring. There are always “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” members of the group for each book we read but this was the first—and possibly only—unanimous “thumbs up” title we’ve had since I joined. The interesting and somewhat unique quality (for a modern novel in any case) is that not much seems to happen in terms of plot, but to me, that was perfectly fine. The novel takes place in Paris, and centers around two main characters, Renee and Paloma. Renee is a middle-aged concierge of an upper-class apartment building who wears the façade of a frumpy, vacuous, stereotypical working-class grunt in order to camouflage her true identity: a deep thinker, and a lover of Russian literature, Japanese cinema, and philosophy. Paloma, a 12-year old who lives in her building, is more than precocious, with astute, adult observations about herself and those around her. Her dissatisfaction with her world has led her to the decision to commit suicide when she turns 13, and her side of the story is told in the form of a journal in which she records her profound thoughts for posterity. When a new and mysterious resident moves into the building, the characters’ lives begin to more closely intersect as they gradually reveal their true selves to each other.

These characters, while perhaps unbelievable, are so rich and vivid (thanks to truly poetic prose) that I wanted this book to go on and on so that I could continue getting to know them. The last book to affect me the way this one has was The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and I think a large part of its appeal is its engaging and charming characters (also a child and an adult, an elderly man in this case) and a tendency on the part of the writer to prefer depth as opposed to breadth. I wholeheartedly recommend both, as well as Barbery’s first book, Gourmet Rhapsody.

In general, do you find that a plot-driven book catches and holds your interest more than one that is character-driven? I would have placed myself in the first category until I reflected on those books that have most impacted me; almost all of the books that I would rate 10 of 10 focus much more on characters than plot.

Are there characters that have stuck with you, the way that Renee and Paloma have done for me? What are qualities that make a character memorable or compelling?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg H. July 9, 2010 at 10:55 AM

My very favorite book, EDISTO by Padgett Powell, is very much character driven. Simons Manigault is a 12 year old, stuck in the middle his parents contentious divorce. His mother has determined that he will be a writer and the book itself is his project. Simons is smart and insightful but what he can’t figure out for himself he often learns from Taurus, a process server he befriends. As with Barbery’s book, nothing very monumental happens. It’s just a snapshot of the lives of these characters, but told with such wit, humor, and attention to life’s little details that I’ve gone back and read the book over and over.

Ken July 9, 2010 at 11:00 AM

I can relate to this post. I look for these same traits when I read, so I think that makes me character driven. I had the same intense response to the characters in The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. I couldn’t put that book down, and then I hated to see it end. Thanks for the recommendations too.

Anonymous July 10, 2010 at 10:46 AM

Most of my favorites are character driven as well. I think it’s because I feel more intimately involved in the book, experiencing it from deep within a character as opposed to observing a series of events. I loved The Secret Life of Bees and the Barbery books are also favorites. Has anyone read the Isabel Dalhousie books by Alexander McCall-Smith? Not much happens, especially considering they are mysteries. But I enjoy the philosophical musings of the main character.

R. Hughes July 10, 2010 at 12:27 PM

Not sure if I prefer character-driven or plot-driven. Your question makes me think of John Irving’s books. Have read almost all of them–and remember them most because of the characters. Also, I was quite attached to Lyra and Will from Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Glad I was at home at the kitchen table when I got to the end because I unexpectedly cried and cried…

Sara July 13, 2010 at 10:56 AM

Most often I need a good character or characters to get me from cover to cover so I appreciate great depth or rich histories. The History of Love’s characters are high up on my list of favorites as are those in Amanda Davis’ Wonder When You’ll Miss Me. It was hard to let go of those memorable personalities!

Shantrice W. August 5, 2010 at 6:02 PM

I recently read Dorothy Garlock’s “Stay a Little Longer” and have been fussing about the main male character Mason Tucker ever since. I couldn’t go beyond his selfishness to see him as worthy of forgiveness from the other characters in the story. Harshly I decided he didn’t deserve to “get the girl”, as they say, in the end. Love romance novels and have enjoyed other books by Dorothy Garlock but I wasn’t fond of this character at all.

Phoenix P. June 16, 2011 at 6:08 PM

I always thought I liked only plot-driven books (goodness gracious, how else would it keep your interest?) but little by little the character-driven ones are seeping in. I hated Hedgehog. At the beginning. I didn’t understand the fuss about Barbery, who seemed an arrogant and superior Iris Murdoch. I couldn’t relate to the prickly, self-absorbed, haughty characters as they dispensed wisdom to the reader, taking great pains to keep their knowledge clandestine to the outside world.

That said, Hedgehog is simply amazing. Barbery transforms these characters without altering who they are or changing anything about them. Alternatively, Barbery changes the reader.

Renee initially struck me as the most splintered character, so class-obsessed that everything in her life was in terms of the working poor and the bourgeois, so overly-philosophical that she turned phenomenology into a nearly consumptive neurosis. Then, she ranted about simple grammar and I found myself chuckling and cringing along with her. Slowly, I began to appreciate Renee’s economical and urbane vocabulary…this was truly an enlightened woman. So, at the point in which Renee revealed her past, I felt I understood her completely; I felt that in an alternate universe, I could even be her. I sat baffled at how Barbery managed that.

Paloma needled me from the start; precocious was far too kind a word for that arrogant and narcissistic child. I thought her suicidal tendencies were cursory at best. But, by the end of the novel, I understood her. I liked her. I ached for her. Her final observation was no less short of brilliant.

How did Barbery change *me* by reading this? The characters each grew and had their respective revelations, as is expected in any good work of literature…but I found myself the most changed of all. I feel both unsettled and elated at this thought. I think my approach to character-driven books was the most changed aspect of all.

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