I’ve had the pleasure of analyzing the structure of the following stories on the Save the Cat! website, using Blake Snyder’s beat sheet. The direct links to the original posts are highlighted in the titles, and the full text for each is also included below. [If you’re looking for other articles specific to the writing life or are interested in lists of some of my favorite books & websites for authors, check out my FOR WRITERS page!]
1-18-13: Pride and Prejudice
4-18-19: The Rosie Project
5-31-19: The Catcher in the Rye
8-22-19: Anne of Green Gables
10- 24-19: One for the Money
11-14-19: The Importance of Being Earnest
2-11-21: Romancing Mister Bridgerton
6-17-21: The Midnight Library
7-22-21: Things You Save in a Fire
10-14-21: Practical Magic
12-16-21: Five Tuesdays in Winter
2-10-22: The Maid
4-7-22: The Last Thing He Told Me
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:
If you stroll through the childhoods and young adulthoods of future writers, you’ll always find a unique set of novels and/or films that left a particularly strong mark. Stories that influenced the very worldview of that writer-to-be by stamping it with an indelible impression of skillfully paced plots, believable motivations, insightful characterizations, clever subtexts, and compelling themes.
We all have our own private shelves—literally or figuratively—that feature these memorable examples of storytelling. Forevermore, we hold up their masterful narration as our personal standard of excellence. The one we hope to rise closer to… someday. If we practice really hard. And if the writing gods smile upon us, even slightly.
This month, the worlds of both classic lit and genre fiction unite in honoring Jane Austen, an author who is one of my greatest literary influences. Her second published novel—that work of staggering genius we know as Pride and Prejudice—turns 200 years old on January 28th. For me, it’s a double celebration. I was, admittedly, under the influence of Austen and her comedy of manners when I wrote my debut novel, According to Jane (Kensington Books, 2009). It’s a romantic women’s fiction story about a woman who has the ghost of Jane Austen in her head giving her dating advice for two decades. Some called the book “highly imaginative.” Others called it “weirdly psychotic.” (I’m kinda biased, so I’ll let you decide.)
Now, four years later, I’m celebrating the release of my seventh novel, Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match, which is the first book since my debut to give such an obvious nod to my literary idol. This story is a contemporary romance about an ER doctor and a single mom who cross paths on an Internet dating site. Both have motives aside from meeting their “love match,” and both think they’ll be able to get what they want—fast, easy, and without endangering their hearts. We all know, though, that the course of true love (or carefully plotted fiction) will never run that smoothly…
Miss Austen did not have the benefit of Blake’s beat sheet at her writing desk, like I did when I drafted my novels, but that doesn’t mean her work didn’t exemplify the same brilliant storytelling techniques Blake so clearly illuminated for us. In honor of them both, here is my best attempt at writing out a beat sheet for Pride and Prejudice:
1. Opening Image: Mrs. Bennet, a Regency-era mother to five single daughters (Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia, in order of age), is yammering on and on to her husband about how a new eligible and wealthy bachelor just moved into the neighborhood.
2. Theme Stated: C’mon you British lit buffs—or fans of Colin Firth—say this one with me: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Imparted to readers with a heavy dose of irony.)
3. Set-Up: We get to know the Bennet clan, particularly sweet/beautiful Jane and witty/opinionated Elizabeth, as they interact as a family and go to the Meryton Ball—the first of the major balls in the novel. (Really, don’t read this book if you can’t abide dancing.) We then encounter the object of Mrs. Bennet’s interest, Mr. Charles Bingley, who is in attendance with his snobbish sister Caroline, his other snobbish sister and her husband and, most interestingly of all, his best friend. Enter the even wealthier and handsomer—albeit, significantly prouder and more arrogant—Mr. Darcy. Despite how literary convention might expect us to think that Bingley’s romance with Jane should be the primary one in the novel, it is not. We get to contrast “pride” and “prejudice” in action as Bingley’s best friend Darcy and Jane’s dear sister Elizabeth meet.
4. Catalyst: Darcy scoffs at the idea of dancing with Elizabeth, no matter how fervently his good-natured buddy implores him to do so. He growls that she’s “tolerable” but not handsome enough to tempt him. Elizabeth overhears this conversation, and you can imagine how well that goes over with her. Her true character, though intelligent and, at heart, quite loving, is one of a woman with a LONG and exacting memory. And Darcy, who spoke in haste and out of irritation at being in unfamiliar circumstances alongside people with whom he didn’t share many interests, would live to regret his uncharitable words.
5. Debate: Others may disagree with me on this point (so feel free to counter), but I’d argue that the A Story is all about Mrs. Bennet wanting to marry off her daughters and the debate here is a series of discussions from the perspectives of multiple characters regarding the nature of courtship and marriage. To Mrs. Bennet, it’s all about money and luxurious living. To Charlotte (Elizabeth’s best friend), it’s about finding a respectable man and comfortable home. To Jane, it’s love and kindness. To young silly sisters Kitty and Lydia, it’s handsome officers. Elizabeth requires something more in a spouse—intellectual respect—while Bingley and Darcy debate the qualities they admire: pleasant manners and attractiveness (Bingley) versus being clever and accomplished (Darcy). And for the Bennets’ relative, Mr. Collins, it’s finding a woman his patron, Lady Catherine (Darcy’s rich and obnoxious aunt, no less!), would approve of, given his standing in the church. Everyone argues their positions.
6. Break into Two: Elizabeth’s romance with Darcy really begins (and not well). She makes a choice to visit Jane, who has fallen ill during a lunch date with Bingley’s snobbish sisters, and she must brave the irritations of Darcy and Caroline in order to give comfort to her dearest sister.
7. B Story: In spite of himself, this is where Darcy really starts to like Elizabeth—particularly her fine eyes and her liveliness of mind. It’s also where her dislike of him is even more firmly cemented.
8. Fun and Games: Oh, there are evening balls and many witty remarks, plus the appearance of new people on the scene and much dating/courtship action. The promise of the premise is in full swing here with marriage proposals, sudden departures, rampant social gossip, and rakish men. Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth. She refuses, so he proposes to her friend Charlotte, who impulsively accepts. Mr. Darcy and the Bingley sisters persuade Mr. Bingley to leave town, and Jane, in hopes of crossing paths with him again, leaves as well to stay with relatives in London. Elizabeth, who has already met the cunning but charming officer Mr. Wickham (also the son of Darcy’s late father’s steward—follow that?), begins to learn of even more horrible deeds that Wickham has attributed to Darcy. She readily believes them.
9. Midpoint: Elizabeth takes a trip to visit her friend Charlotte, now married to the foolish Mr. Collins, and encounters the formidable and frequently rude Lady Catherine. Since the Lady is Darcy aunt, it’s not so implausible that Darcy suddenly shows up there, too. It is, however, a shock to all of us when Darcy unexpectedly proposes to Elizabeth (badly). Less of a shock is that she immediately refuses him, citing his interference in her sister’s romance with Bingley and his nastiness to “poor Mr. Wickham.” Let’s just say, none of this is how Darcy imagined things would play out. He storms off and writes a long letter to Elizabeth, explaining that Wickham is a really bad guy. Both Elizabeth and Darcy have been prideful and prejudiced in a number of ways, and the state of both of their love lives seems pretty pathetic right about now.
10. Bad Guys Close In: This is where the plot thickens. The officers of the regiment, including Mr. Wickham, leave the area for another town. Youngest sister Lydia gets an invitation to go there with a friend and her father lets her go, against Elizabeth’s advice. Elizabeth, meanwhile, gets to take a new trip—this one with her sensible aunt and uncle from London. They head north to the region of Derbyshire, where her aunt grew up and, coincidentally, where Darcy’s famous estate of Pemberley is located.
11. All Is Lost: GASP! Darcy is THERE in Derbyshire, too! After some months apart, during which he has regretted his ungentlemanly behavior and she has regretted believing Wickham’s lies, the two see each other for the first time, mutually humbled and with much clearer vision. They talk and are on the verge of something very courtship like when disaster strikes. Jane writes a letter saying that Lydia has run away with Wickham and the two cannot be found.
12. Dark Night of the Soul: Elizabeth must return home, knowing that Lydia’s actions will forever tarnish the reputation of her family and that Darcy wouldn’t want anything to do with her now. Because of his earlier warnings about Wickham, she confesses to him what has happened with her youngest sister and, basically, says goodbye to him. She knows any further relationship between them is hopeless. It’s heartbreaking. Just when both she and Darcy had finally escaped their pride/prejudice toward each other, they are torn apart.
13. Break into Three: At home, Elizabeth consoles her mother and her sisters while her father is in London attempting to locate Lydia and hoping to convince Wickham to marry her, rather than leave her a “ruined” woman. Elizabeth, fully understanding now that Darcy was telling her the truth about Wickham’s character, is more stunned than anyone when they all find out that Lydia and Wickham are engaged and about to get married. It is a terrible match, but it is the only thing that can be done to save the family’s reputation. Mrs. Bennet is ecstatic to finally have one daughter married, even under these circumstances.
14. Finale: Wickham and Lydia visit the Bennets as a married couple. Elizabeth is wiser now and distances herself from Wickham and his Darcy-bashing speeches. Lydia lets a secret slip—Darcy was with them in London—which makes Elizabeth crazy with curiosity. She begins to investigate. Meanwhile, Bingley suddenly returns, seeks out Jane and, eventually, proposes. Jane says yes. Lady Catherine surprises Elizabeth with a visit, demanding that she stop pursuing Darcy. Elizabeth is seriously confused. She hasn’t seen Darcy in a while and, though she respects him now, she’s quite sure she’s not secretly engaged to him. Nevertheless, she tells off his aunt with her best Regency-era insults, and is further stunned when Darcy himself shows up soon afterward. Elizabeth has learned that HE was the one who found Lydia and paid Wickham off to marry her. When Darcy proposes a second time, Elizabeth accepts with pleasure.
15: Final Image: We have the weddings of the “two most deserving” Bennet daughters. With three out of the five young ladies now married, Mrs. Bennet is beside herself with delight. And it’s a happily ever after ending for those characters who have earned it.
So, for all of my fellow P&P fans out there, how did I do? Would you change anything? And, for everyone, what are some of the books or films from your youth that most influenced your writing?
THE ROSIE PROJECT:
Written by: Graeme Simsion
Simon & Schuster paperback edition, 2013
Genre: Buddy Love… with a touch of Fool Triumphant
How does The Rosie Project hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the novel:
Australian novelist Graeme Simsion created one of my favorite novels of the decade. From the moment I picked up The Rosie Project, I was hooked. It was positively brimming with humor and heart, the narrative voice was engaging, and the structure was simply beautiful. It was the kind of story I found myself recommending to everyone: friends, family members, a number of local book clubs, countless readers online, random people who talked to me in grocery store checkout lines…
I’ve read it from cover to cover several times now, most recently this spring when I studied it from a beat sheet perspective. To me, it was a textbook example of stellar plotting. And given that the author originally wrote the story as a movie treatment before expanding it into a novel, I’m certain Simsion was familiar with screenwriting structure. (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was a Save the Cat! fan, too.) In transitioning this story to book form, he didn’t lose a beat. Literally.
For anyone not familiar with this New York Times bestselling novel, here is the back cover blurb:
Don Tillman, genetics professor, is getting married. Or he will be, when his sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey yields a candidate (see: the Wife Project). Designed to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the vegans, the late arrivers, Don’s questionnaire is, for this socially challenged academic, the most logical method to find the perfect partner.
Enter Rosie Jarman.
Don quickly disqualifies her as a potential wife but is drawn into Rosie’s quest to find her biological father (see: the Father Project). When something like a friendship develops, Don must confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie and the decidedly unscientific conclusion that sometimes you don’t find love, it finds you.
If you haven’t yet had a chance to pick up this entertaining novel, I hope you’ll give it a read. It’s also been optioned by Sony Pictures and may be in pre-production. The film has had several big names attached to it to star and direct but there have been a lot of changes and, as of this writing, there’s no set release date. I’d love to see it on the big screen soon, though… fingers crossed!
And now, the Beats!
Opening Image (page 1): Highly intelligent Australian genetics professor Don Tillman, who is on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum but doesn’t realize it, believes he’s found a solution to the “Wife Problem,” which involves him finding an ideal mate despite his quirky personality.
Theme Stated (pages 12-15): Two comments from two different women are used in tandem to highlight the theme. Julie—the lady running the Asperger’s lecture that Don is giving to the young “Aspies”—says to him about the children, “If they don’t change, they’re not going to have real relationships; they’ll never have partners.” However, Daphne, an older lady Don had befriended before she passed away, once said to him that he would “make a wonderful husband” and that “there’s someone for everyone.” Don admits this is “statistically correct.”
Set-Up (pages 1-38): Tremendous order and organization in Don’s life. Readers are given the minute-to-minute rundown of his day. Don takes his routine very seriously.
Catalyst (pages 39-47): He meets Rosie, a psychology PhD student, when she appears at his office door. After she tells Don that his friend Gene sent her to him, Don is convinced that Rosie is there because she’s a compatible romantic match for him. Don had created an extensive dating questionnaire (which he shared with Gene, and his friend said he’d “help” him with the “Wife Project”), so Don is sure this is the reason for Rosie’s appearance. But this is an incorrect assumption. That isn’t at all why Gene told Rosie to visit him.
Debate (pages 48-68): Don is very attracted to Rosie, despite her obvious unsuitability—at least according to his questionnaire. She has dyed hair and dresses in a sloppy manner, she smokes, and she’s frequently late. He cannot imagine what his friend Gene was thinking. However, Don wonders if he should date Rosie anyway. After all, experiments require a control group and, thus far, the questionnaire hadn’t worked to find him a perfect match. Also, Rosie has a problem—she is trying to identify her biological father—and Don, who is a persistent puzzle solver, thinks he might be able to help her.
Break into Two (pages 68-71): Don decides to visit Rosie at the bar where she works and spend the time with her during the hours he would have otherwise allocated for his Wife Project, at least until a more suitable romantic candidate emerges for him.
B Story (pages 72-98): Instinct displaces logic when Don is with Rosie. She is desperately trying to figure out the name of her biological father, and Don has some ideas of how to find the answer. He works to get DNA samples of two men who are Rosie’s potential fathers and, even though the results are negative, he and Rosie spend some time together, which turns out to be surprisingly pleasant for him.
Fun and Games (pages 99-130): Various Rosie and Don outings follow as the two of them come up with strategies for finding other potential fathers and collecting DNA samples from them, most memorably, making complicated cocktails for a room full of doctors. At one point, Rosie asks Don to pretend to be her boyfriend. As a result of these activities, they both get to know each other better and find they have a lot of fun in each other’s company. Don starts to feel “at the brink of another world” when he’s with her. He changes his schedule repeatedly to accommodate her and to try to solve the mystery of her paternity.
Midpoint (pages 131-150): False defeat. The Dean at the university wants him to try harder to “fit in,” and Don’s search for a wife (even though it’s been on the backburner while he’s been working with Rosie) gives him a reason to attempt it. He finally finds somebody whose answers fit what he’s looking for on the dating questionnaire, and it’s a woman who loves to dance. Don takes it upon himself to learn—with the help of a skeleton in his office. He invites this woman to a staff dance, and Rosie is there with a date.
She’s furious with Don because she’s just discovered that he thought her initial reason for meeting him was because she wanted to be a candidate for his Wife Project. She’s even angrier with Gene for not correcting that impression. Nevertheless, she still comes to Don’s rescue when his date with the dancer turns disastrous, and it’s clear to the reader—if not to Don—that she has real feelings for him. On the way home after the event, Rosie and Don share a taxi. She casually suggests sex, which he declines on account of their supposed “incompatibility”… although, later, he regrets refusing her.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 151-239): Don is unable to simply return to his old way of life and the routine that always comforted him. He tries to tamp down his feelings of anger—both at Rosie and at himself. With the money he receives as an inheritance from his late friend Daphne, Don takes Rosie on a trip to New York City. He doesn’t like to leave anything unfinished, and this is a way to complete her “Father Project” and obtain the last remaining samples of DNA needed to determine her paternity. They collect samples, meet new people, and explore Columbia University.
During the course of this overseas excursion, the suggestion of sex comes up again and Don appears to be eager to go along with it this time. However, he spends so long preparing to return to Rosie’s room that she changes her mind. Don eventually realizes he delayed because he was afraid of the deep emotional involvement. The Father Project officially comes to an end.
All Is Lost (pages 239-240): Don is depressed. Rosie thinks that he’s too attached to his schedule, that he messes up socially too often and, worst of all, that he can’t feel love. He fears she may be right.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 241-242): In a conversation with Gene, Don decides that he can prove to Rosie that he most definitely can feel love, as well as show her that he can break out of his old routine.
Break into Three (pages 243-248): Don sets out to fix the situation with Rosie. He starts by watching her favorite romantic films and taking notes, determining there are consistent principles of behavior in a romantic relationship.
Finale (pages 248-285): Don puts a less restrictive schedule into practice: only class lectures and appointments, not absolutely everything. He also revamps his wardrobe and appearance to be more socially acceptable. He’s determined to make Rosie fall in love with him. He systematically eliminates a number of “unconventional mannerisms” from his vocabulary, while juggling his work duties and even managing to get funding for his Australian university, thanks to a genetics project he created as a “cover” when trying to get DNA samples for Rosie. He also meets the man Rosie considers her stepfather and boxes with him at the gym.
Don learns valuable information about Rosie this way—and also about himself. He discovers he doesn’t have to be visibly “odd” anymore. That in the past, he often chose to emphasize his differences as a defense mechanism. But he has many skills others don’t and some of these are quite advantageous. He might be able to find another woman to “partner” with (even without the use of a questionnaire) but, most importantly, he realizes that despite his unconventional personality, he possesses an undeniable degree of empathy… at least with real people, if not fictional ones. He loves Rosie and has finally learned how to open up and trust her.
Final Image (pages 286-292): Don, now married and living in the United States with Rosie, has figured out who her biological father is but, above all, he’s discovered that he’s grateful for the illogical assumptions that led to him meeting Rosie and to their falling in love.
THE CATCHER IN THE RYE:
Written by: J.D. Salinger
Little, Brown and Company
Mass market paperback edition, copyright 1946 & 1946 (serial) and 1951 (novel)
STG Genre: Rites of Passage
Book Genre: Realistic coming-of-age fiction
How does Catcher in the Rye hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the classic novel:
Given that J.D. Salinger’s literary masterpiece is the subject of this particular novel-based beat sheet, I was tempted to write out the introduction and all 15 beats in the following style:
It’s been years since I read The Catcher in the Rye all the way through. Decades, if you really want to know the truth. Not that I’m going to tell you all about my boring high school days or the crap that went on in the mid 1980s. Like you really need to hear about legwarmers and Wham! and shit.
But I first read this novel back then, when I was, like, sixteen. I was as sick of all the fake people and the stupid cliques in my small Wisconsin town as Holden Caulfield was at his prep school with the phonies. I totally hated it that the teachers made us read this thing. Like they thought it’d be cool of them to assign us something hip for a change, not like that depressing as hell Romeo and Juliet. Or that god-awful Molière stuff that they tried to pass off as “comedy”…
(And, yeah, I could keep going like this because it’s fun, but I won’t torture you with more. Only Salinger can get away with over 200 pages of it, LOL.)
Looking back, despite the fact that the novel came across as dated to my peers and to me, even when we were reading it in the 80s, the unrelenting “voicey-ness” made an impression.
Salinger’s highly distinctive narrative style left an indelible imprint on my memory, making Holden a character I couldn’t forget—even when I wanted to. Whenever fellow writers or book-club readers and I get talking on the subject of an author’s voice, the first-person narration of The Catcher in the Rye is never far from my mind. Salinger not only captured the sound of his generation, but he gave voice to the conflicted inner world of an adolescent in search of authenticity and connection.
Written when Salinger was in his twenties over a period of about a decade (some of which was during his time abroad fighting WWII), parts of the manuscript were originally published in serial form in 1945 – 1946. He later took these short stories about the Caulfield family and reworked them into the current novel, which was released in 1951 when the author was just thirty-two.
Some literary critics believe the strong alienation theme hinted that this was a war novel in disguise—possibly a way for Salinger to process the pain of his WWII experience. Regardless, the book turned into a literary anthem for disgruntled youth who were struggling with the transition between the joyful innocence of childhood and the burgeoning (and often difficult and disappointing) realities of adulthood.
Here’s the official blurb:
It’s Christmas and Holden Caulfield has just been expelled from yet another school. Fleeing the crooks at Pencey Prep, he pinballs around New York City seeking solace in fleeting encounters—shooting the bull with strangers in dive hotels, wandering alone round Central Park, getting beaten up by pimps, and cut down by erstwhile girlfriends.
The city is beautiful and terrible, in all its neon loneliness and seedy glamour, its mingled sense of possibility and emptiness. Holden passes through it like a ghost, thinking always of his kid sister Phoebe, the only person who really understands him, and his determination to escape the phonies and find a life of true meaning.
The Catcher in the Rye is an all-time classic coming-of-age story: an elegy to teenage alienation, capturing the deeply human need for connection and the bewildering sense of loss as we leave childhood behind.
For such a short book, Salinger’s iconic novel is packed with insight into the human condition—and especially those adolescent years—on nearly every page.
My take on the beats:
Opening Image (pages 1 – 2): In the idiosyncratic voice of the 17-year-old protagonist, the novel begins with Holden recounting a series of incidents from the prior year, which include reflections on his “lousy childhood” and the “madman stuff” that took place just before Christmas and which caused him to get sick.
This monologue cleanly establishes his character as an unreliable narrator and presents a vague sense of setting, which is in an institution of some kind—across the country in California, near his older brother D.B., a successful Hollywood writer—where Holden is currently convalescing. The present day intro takes place several unspecified months after Holden’s difficulty during the holidays.
Theme Stated (page 8): Holden recounts how his former history teacher, old Mr. Spencer, requested to see him at his house before Holden was due to leave the prep school. Mr. Spencer says, “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.” Outwardly, Holden pretends to agree, but he doesn’t buy into this. To himself, he thinks: Game my ass. Some game.
Set-Up (pages 1 – 39): Holden begins divulging to the reader additional recollections about the end of his fall semester at his prep school out East, just before the winter break. He’s sixteen and failing classes, about to get kicked out of his fourth school, Pencey. He knows his parents are going to be angry, so he wants to delay facing them, but he can’t stand being around his fellow boarding school students either.
Holden shares his (mostly unflattering) impressions of all the individuals he’s annoyed with, including but not limited to the vast majority of his teachers, his fencing teammates (Holden has proved to be a rather inept team manager), girls he’s formerly dated, his next door neighbor Ackley, and his roommate Stradler. The latter is a particular thorn in Holden’s side because he’s just begun dating a girl named Jane, whom we discover Holden still likes. Stradler is going out for the evening with Jane and wants Holden to write a descriptive English composition for him.
Holden pulls out a baseball mitt, which we learn belonged to his dead brother Allie, who died from leukemia when Holden was thirteen. Holden elects to describe that object, which has great sentimental value to him.
Catalyst (pages 40 – 46): Stradler’s lack of appreciation for the essay, combined with his teasing reaction to Holden’s questions about the date with Jane, enrages Holden. The roommate refuses to divulge whether or not he and Jane had sex that night, and this ignites in Holden further jealousy and anger. He tries to punch Stradler, but the other guy is stronger and he bloodies Holden’s nose.
Debate (pages 46 – 52): Holden has officially had enough of Pencey Prep and everyone in it. He considers his options and decides to leave the school early and stay on his own at a hotel in Manhattan for the last three days before break starts.
Break into Two (pages 53): Holden sneaks away from the school to the train station, literally leaving his comfort zone to venture into a “new world” (or, rather, a familiar world but viewed in a new way), just as Act 2 begins.
Fun and Games (pages 54 – 100): What follows is a series of surprising situations and unpleasant incidents that are hardly “fun” in the typical sense of the word, but Holden’s desperate search for interpersonal connection alongside his quest for self understanding and sexual experience have him taking risks and attempting to talk (or, more often, lie) to the people he encounters.
B Story (page 60): The B Story involves Holden’s relationship with his sister Phoebe, a prototypical “helper character.” She doesn’t appear physically until later, but he thinks of her—admiring her intelligence and the humorous stories she writes—and is tempted to call her at this point, early in Fun and Games. He refrains only because he fears the possibility of having to talk with his parents.
Midpoint (pages 100 – 104): False defeat. He’s offered the opportunity to hire a prostitute and initially agrees. When Holden sees her, however, he changes his mind about sleeping with her. Although he gives her the promised money, he just wants to talk with her. The prostitute takes cash but is angry about his behavior and, later, returns with her pimp for more money. The pimp punches Holden and injures him, not just physically but emotionally. He feels like committing suicide but doesn’t do it—only because he doesn’t want to be gawked at when he’s all gory.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 105 – 149): He tries to find his young sister Phoebe but can’t. And he has an unsatisfying conversation with Carl Luce, a former classmate, that leaves him confused and even more lonely. He gets really drunk.
All Is Lost (pages 149 – 154): In his inebriated state, he drunk dials his old girlfriend Sally, who he’d seen earlier in the day, but she’s still angry with him and rebuffs him further. Then he accidentally breaks the record he’d purchased as a gift for his sister, which upsets him, too. He ruminates more on the mess that is his life, alternately preoccupied with thoughts of sex and death. He’s extremely depressed.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 154 – 157): It’s quite literally a dark night of soul searching for Holden. He sits down on a cold bench very late at night in the middle of Central Park and reacts to everything that’s happened up until now. His life isn’t going well and his plan to spend these days alone in the city has been unsuccessful. He ultimately decides it’s time to go home—if only to see his sister—but he doesn’t want to get caught by his parents.
Break into Three (pages 157 – 158): He manages to convince the night elevator boy to let him up to his parents’ floor. Holden’s plan is to simply sneak inside, see his sister, and leave again. Interestingly, it’s at this point that he actively begins to “play the game” that he’d so scrupulously avoided earlier. In regards to his deception of the elevator boy, Holden tells the reader, “It’s funny. All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to.”
Finale (pages 158 – 213): Holden spends time with his sister Phoebe until he hears his parents returning home. He sneaks out and visits a former teacher from one of his earlier schools, but he has an upsetting encounter there, too. Holden finally figures out a solution to his problems, which is to run away and go out West. His sister, however insists on coming along with him—basically, refusing to let him be alone and disconnect from her.
A and B Stories cross with this reconnection with Phoebe, which ultimately helps him deal with his lingering loss over Allie’s death. He also recognizes that his older brother, D.B., isn’t a bad sibling either. Grief is a process that Holden is working through and, while he doesn’t openly admit this, his future isn’t necessarily as bleak as it had appeared to be, even earlier in the day. Emotions are changeable. For the moment, watching his sister ride on the carousel in such a carefree way, Holden realizes he’s happy.
Final Image (pages 213 – 214): The opening and final images are framed with narrative in the present day, and we return to that now. Holden is in California, still convalescing, with plans to return to the East and begin at a new school in September. He claims to be getting better, but is he? He seems to recognize his own sense of nostalgia, but whether he’s successfully transitioned from a teen to an adult is debatable. Salinger’s unreliable narrator leaves the reader wondering…
ANNE OF GREEN GABLES:
Written by: L.M. Montgomery
Publisher: L.C. Page & Co., 1908 (original publication); Angus & Robertson, paperback, 1987 (my edition)
Total pages: 256
Genre: Rites of Passage
How does Anne of Green Gables hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the classic novel:
Canadian author L.M. (Lucy Maud) Montgomery wrote a beloved historical children’s/young adult series that quickly became a favorite among readers of all ages. The heroine, clever orphan Anne (“spelled with an E”) Shirley, is a character known as much for her imaginative spirit and her penchant for getting herself into social scrapes as she is for being a fiery redhead.
This first novel in the multi-book series, set on Prince Edward Island between 1876 and 1881, covers the period in Anne’s life from when she arrives in Avonlea (a picturesque, albeit fictional, small town) at age eleven and it spans her school years until she’s sixteen.
Mistakenly sent to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a pair of middle-aged siblings who lived together and who had originally intended to adopt a boy, Anne must learn to make her way in this new world of school and society. For a well-intentioned, hardworking, and very bright girl—but one who is ever so dramatic and prone to mishaps—this proves to be more difficult than her adoptive family ever expected.
The popularity of the story over the past century led to more stage and screen adaptations than I can count, but the version I most love to watch is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s film featuring Megan Follows as Anne and the late Jonathan Crombie as the handsome Gilbert Blythe. I’ve seen this production (and its sequels!) many times and have read the first several books almost as often. The stories are humorous and heartwarming and, though I have neither freckles nor red hair, I couldn’t help but wish for both after devouring Anne’s adventures.
Immensely readable and enjoyable, Anne of Green Gables is a classic for the young and the young at heart. Since its publication in 1908, it’s sold more than 50,000,000 copies and has been translated into at least 20 languages. If you haven’t yet had a chance to pick up a copy, I hope you’ll give it a read sometime and experience the joys and sorrows of life in Avonlea for yourself.
Here’s my take on the beats:
Opening Image (pages 1-8, although the first six pages of this edition are front matter; the story officially begins on pg. 7): The novel opens in the point of view of nosy next-door neighbor Rachel Lynde, which is somewhat unusual given that she’s a secondary character. Mrs. Lynde, however, represents the townspeople of Avonlea, and when she spots Matthew Cuthbert driving his buggy and wearing his best suit—oh my!—she just knows something out of the ordinary is afoot. She immediately sets off to Marilla Cuthbert’s house, Green Gables, which Marilla shares with her brother Matthew, to determine what on earth is going on.
Theme Stated (pages 12-13): After being forced to confess to Mrs. Lynde that Matthew is headed out to pick up the boy they’re planning to adopt, Marilla is faced with her neighbor’s surprise and a series of warnings. Marilla responds by telling her neighbor and friend that “…there’s risks in pretty near everything a body does in this world.” When Mrs. Lynde recounts further horrors about the dangers of adoption, specifically when dealing with a girl, Marilla adds, “Well, we’re not getting a girl… I’d never dream of taking a girl to bring up.”
The theme revolves around a willingness to take risks—for Anne, that means opening herself up to big dreams beyond even her wild imaginings and, for Marilla, that means taking on the role of a parent for the first time, even in her more advanced years, and learning how to raise a spirited girl.
Set-Up (pages 7-25): Matthew, a shy man of few words, arrives at the train station and, to his shock, there isn’t a young boy waiting for him as expected to help him with the chores and farm work. Instead, there’s Anne, who’s a highly imaginative and almost unfathomably talkative girl. She jabbers about her time at the orphanage and how there wasn’t much “scope for the imagination” there. She tells him snippets of her background and, even while she tries to speak positively of her past, it’s obvious to Matthew and to the reader that she’s had a very hard life for an 11-year-old.
She’s delighted by commonplace things and is moved to give fanciful titles to places like Barry’s Pond, which she renames the “Lake of Shining Waters.” Matthew is utterly charmed by her and can’t bring himself to tell her she can’t stay with them for more than a night or two. He’s grateful his sister Marilla is such a firm and practical woman. She’s going to have to be the one to break it to Anne that she’ll need to return to the orphanage. Secretly, he’s already begun to wish Anne could stay.
Catalyst (pages 25-31): Upon meeting Anne, Marilla is not only surprised by this unexpected youngster, but she’s positively determined to return the orphan to where she belongs and get whatever 11- or 12-year-old boy is available instead. Anne bursts into tears at not being wanted simply because she’s a girl, and she rants dramatically in a way that completely disrupts the equilibrium of the two original Green Gables residents.
Debate (pages 31-49): Marilla knows her soft-spoken brother rarely asks for anything and, yet, Matthew has made it clear in his subtle way that he’d like to keep Anne. Marilla herself, certain the child is practically a heathen, investigates the situation further. She learns a bit more about Anne’s tragic background, not to mention the unpleasant future that would likely befall the girl if the Cuthberts don’t take her in.
Marilla decides that, perhaps, on a trial basis, they could keep Anne. After all, Marilla feels she herself has had “a pretty easy life of it so far” but that now her time for some trouble has come. Marilla will do her duty and take on the project of raising Anne.
Break into Two (page 49): Anne’s official bringing up begins at Green Gables and, in fact, the title of the eighth chapter is aptly named “Anne’s Bringing-up is Begun.”
B Story (page 53): While the A Story is primarily about Anne’s transition from girlhood to womanhood—with Marilla and Matthew learning how to raise their new daughter and Anne herself beginning the process of growing up in Avonlea—the B Story revolves around friendship, particularly Anne’s long desire for a “bosom friend.” Anne hears more about Diana Barry, a girl of Anne’s age who lives nearby (along Barry’s Pond, aka Lake of Shining Waters) and, sight unseen, Anne is already certain that the two of them will become fast friends.
Lonely orphan Anne has never had an actual human girl as a friend (only imaginary female friends), so she sets her heart on finally having a BFF and sharing all of her experiences and childhood secrets with someone special. Diana, who’s away visiting relatives at the start of the book, will indeed become this treasured friend during the “Fun and Games” section of the story.
Fun and Games (pages 56-113): Growing up isn’t an easy process, especially for someone who struggles deeply with her pride and who’s so talented at finding trouble. Anne begins interacting with the good folks of Avonlea… and they with her. Anne meets outspoken neighbor Mrs. Lynde who, within moments, insults Anne (and vice versa), leading to a temper tantrum on Anne’s part and a spectacular standoff. She is highly sensitive about her hair color and her appearance, which is the source of many a frustration with other characters in the story.
Gilbert Blythe, a boy who attends school with Anne and Diana, makes the massive error of teasing Anne about her hair and calling her “Carrots.” This results in a longstanding personal and academic rivalry, as Gil becomes her nemesis for the vast majority of the novel. (Later in the series, Anne will eventually fall in love with Gil and marry him but, make no mistake, the girl can hold a grudge for years, and the transition from enemies to friends to lovers doesn’t happen quickly!) There are endless “firsts” for Anne—not only finally finding a bosom friend in Diana but, also, going to her first picnic/ice cream social, attending parties, meeting important people and making an impression (!!), and simply experiencing life as a normal school girl in an idyllic setting, rather than as a poor and lonely orphan.
Midpoint (pages 113): False defeat. Marilla allows Anne to invite Diana over for afternoon tea. While at Green Gables, Diana becomes accidentally intoxicated on the currant wine Anne served to her, thinking it was raspberry cordial. Diana feels sick, returns home drunk, and Diana’s mother forbids her daughter from having anything to do with Anne Shirley ever again. In despair, Anne offers her best apology, and even Marilla tries to intervene on Anne’s behalf, but Diana’s mother will not be moved. Diana isn’t allowed to play with Anne any more or even talk with her at school. Both girls are heartbroken.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 113-187): In the midst of this major friendship drama, there are other issues swirling around in Anne’s life, particularly the realm of their little schoolhouse. With Diana off limits to her, Anne is forced to expand her social circle and begins to get to know some of the other girls. Primarily, however, she throws herself into her studies—in small part because she can’t spend time playing with Diana any longer, and in large part because her rivalry with Gilbert Blythe heats up. Competition spurs Anne and Gil both to higher academic achievement, which, though challenging, is necessary for further scholastic opportunities later.
When Diana’s little sister comes down with the croup and their parents are out of town, Diana runs to Green Gables in desperation, hoping Anne can help. In her years before coming to Avonlea, Anne took care of many babies and had dealt with this illness before. She saves the life of Diana’s little sister. As a result, Diana’s mother finally relents and gratefully invites Anne back into their lives again.
There are several additional mishaps and misunderstandings that require Anne to apologize to someone or to heal after accidents, but with chapter titles such as “A Concert, a Catastrophe, and a Confession,” “A Good Imagination Gone Wrong,” and “An Unfortunate Lily Maid,” the reader is forewarned that Anne will face her share of disasters.
All Is Lost (page 187-190): Whiff of death. While playacting a “romantic” death scene with her friends, Anne’s boat is set adrift and floats away as planned. That it begins to leak and strands Anne under a bridge in the middle of the large pond is not at all what she planned. Gilbert comes to her rescue, but she still stubbornly refuses to forgive him and become friends, even though it’s been a couple of years since he’d first insulted her by calling her “Carrots.”
Dark Night of the Soul (page 190-192): After Gil angrily rows away, Anne feels a surprising pang of regret. She finds herself facing her own flaws, wishing she could have let go of her pride and, perhaps, answered Gil differently. But her biggest realization is that, for her, growing up means learning from her mistakes. She recounts some of her shortcomings (i.e., meddling with things that don’t belong to her, letting her imagination run wild, carelessness in cooking, and vanity) and the specific incidents from the past two years that “cured” her of these faults. At this point, though, she decides that this latest calamity will cure her, once and for all, of being “too romantic.”
Break into Three (page 192-199): This marks a new stage in Anne’s life where she’s beginning to be treated more like an adult than a child. Diana’s aunt invites the two girls to town for the Exhibition, and it’s a wondrous experience for Anne. She’s lavished with delicacies and delights but, even so, she realizes she wasn’t born for big city life. However fabulous the adventure, her favorite part is coming home.
Finale (pages 199-254): Anne’s path to womanhood moves more quickly in this section. Her academic achievements rise to the forefront of the story, and it’s clear that her hard work studying plus her natural intellectual gifts make her a top student—although still on equal footing with Gil. She gets a spot in the class to prepare for the Queen’s College entrance exams and, while her rivalry with Gil intensifies, Anne feels a sadness that this academic challenge isn’t one she and Diana can share. (Diana’s parents wouldn’t let her attend college even if she did get in, but Matthew and Marilla want Anne to have that opportunity.)
Anne also notices that she’s nearing the end of her childhood and actually recognizes how much she’s grown up. There are fewer social gaffes and more occasions where her maturity shines through. She wants to “grow up successfully” and feels that the responsibility to do so is on her shoulders.
Meanwhile Marilla, realizing how much she loves the young woman Anne had grown up to be, also feels a sense of loss. She and Matthew have done a good job parenting her, but they’ll miss her terribly when she leaves Avonlea. Anne does, indeed, pass the exams, and she even ties for first place with Gil. She earns her teacher’s certification and wins a college scholarship. Her friendship with Diana has stood the test of time and distance. But then Matthew dies suddenly and Marilla begins to lose her vision. Anne’s priorities are clear: She won’t leave Marilla alone in Green Gables.
Final Image (pages 255-256): After learning that Gilbert has given up his teaching position in Avonlea and taken a job further away so Anne can have the local school and live at home, the two of them finally meet and talk as (mostly) mature adults and friends. There have been both risks and rewards along her journey to womanhood. Anne reflects that despite—or, perhaps, because of—these recent changes, there is now a “bend in the road,” making her life exciting and unpredictable again. Nothing can take away her joy, her “birthright of fancy,” or her world of dreams.
ONE FOR THE MONEY:
Written by: Janet Evanovich
Publisher: HarperTorch, 1994
Total pages: 287
How does One for the Money hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the novel:
The first “Stephanie Plum” novel by #1 New York Times bestselling author Janet Evanovich started a comedic mystery series that’s still going strong. Book #26, Twisted Twenty-Six, is set to be released this year on November 12th, and it continues to star the enduringly loveable bounty hunter heroine, Stephanie, from Trenton, New Jersey, who solves crimes with the help of her quirky family and wisecracking friends. But this novel is the book where it all began, and I was hooked from page one.
Granted, I was a little slow on the uptake initially. I didn’t start reading the series until 2004, a full decade into it and just a few weeks before the release of the tenth Plum novel, Ten Big Ones. I remember this time period well because the wait for that next book—a mere month until its publication—was practically torturous. I was working at the public library in the circulation department, and one of the joys of that position was talking to patrons about their favorite novels and authors.
Janet Evanovich’s name kept coming up. I took their advice on giving her writing a try, but once I picked up One for the Money, I didn’t want to stop reading. I devoured the first nine books in three weeks… had to wait that additional month for the tenth (which I finished in a day) and then an entire year for the eleventh. The characters have come to feel like old friends to me and, while the latter stories in the series have their merits, the first dozen or so Plum books will always be close to my heart.
Here are my take on the Blake Snyder beats for One for the Money:
Opening Image (pages 1 – 3): We’re introduced to a 30-year-old divorced former lingerie buyer raised in a blue-collar neighborhood of Trenton, New Jersey called “the burg.” In the opening pages, Stephanie Plum reflects on her childhood, her upbringing with the many Italian-Hungarian family and friends in the area and, in particular, her earliest memories of Joe Morelli, the bad boy from her youth who eventually becomes a local cop.
Set-Up (pages 1 – 18): Beyond playing “Choo-choo” with Morelli at the age of six and losing her virginity to him at age 16, we learn that Stephanie isn’t one to take an insult lightly. Three years later, the next time she sees him, she retaliates for his bragging about their night together by running into him with her car and purposely breaking his leg. This level of antagonism is reflective of their relationship at the start of the novel, which has even more significance when Stephanie, who’s been out of work for months and is in desperate need of money, manages to get a new job.
We meet various members of Stephanie’s family, including her wacky Grandma Mazur and her parents. We also learn that her cousin Vinnie owns a bail bonding company and needs a filing clerk. Instead of that position, though, Stephanie blackmails him into giving her the highest paying bounty hunting case he’s got available, not realizing at first who she’ll be hunting.
Theme Stated (page 16): In a story that’s a sly love letter to street-smart residents of the Garden State, Vinnie’s secretary Connie says to Stephanie that “… living in New Jersey is a challenge… what’s one more lunatic shooting at you?” Or, translating Connie’s Trenton-specific remark into a more general philosophic statement: Hey, life’s dangerous out there—you’re gonna have to deal with crazies no matter what, so what have you got to lose? It’s a sentiment Stephanie professes to believe.
Catalyst (page 18): After angling for this bounty hunting job despite having absolutely none of the necessary skills for the position, Stephanie finally discovers that the man she’ll need to track down and bring into the station in order to collect her bond money is none other than Vice Cop Joseph Morelli, who’s been accused of murder. Oh, boy.
Debate (pages 19 – 57): Stephanie begins the process of bounty hunting. To say she’s “ill prepared” is an understatement. She’s not sure she can handle doing the job, but she really needs the money and she still really despises Morelli—two forms of motivation that, when combined, seem to overcome all logic and reasoning.
A key player and a mysterious character is introduced here—Ranger—and his involvement will grow in importance during the course of the series. In book one, he takes on the role of Professor Henry Higgins to Stephanie’s Eliza Doolittle in the wonderful world of bounty hunting. He gets her a gun and she begins her investigative work in trying to locate Morelli. If there’s a mistake she can make, she makes it, including ending up in a very dangerous situation with a psycho boxer/bad guy named Ramirez.
Of all people, Joe Morelli himself comes to her rescue but, of course, he’s not about to let her bring him into to the police station to collect a bounty on him. He has his reasons for needing to stay off the grid. He doesn’t think anyone will able to prove he’s innocent of the crime he was jailed for—except for him. He demands that Stephanie stop following him.
Break into Two (pages 57 – 58): Despite her rocky start to bounty hunting, Stephanie decides that she’s been doing better at this whole game than other people, like Morelli, have been giving her credit for, and she’s not going to quit. She just needs a less lethal way to subdue her targets (defense spray rather than a gun, perhaps?), and is determined to continue on the job.
B Story (pages 59 – 64): While Evanovich, who wrote numerous romances before turning to mysteries, does have some delightful romantic elements in this book, the true “love story,” in my opinion, especially in this first novel of the series, is not so much her love of another person as much as her love of this new job, new life, and new self identity.
Not that Stephanie’s mother isn’t above trying to set her up with an appropriate love interest—i.e., someone not remotely like Joseph Morelli, who her mom has been warning her about since she was a grade schooler—but it’s clear that the only real attraction Stephanie is feeling is toward this new role she taking on and the person she’s evolving into as a result.
The B Story is about her love of bounty hunting and the confidence and skills she needs to build to do it well.
Fun and Games (pages 65 – 139): Just as Blake always said, this is the “movie trailer” for the story. For anyone who’s ever watched the 2-minute and 30-second film clip from Katherine Heigl’s and Jason O’Mara’s cinematic version of One for the Money (2012), you got to see much of this beat in action. It features Stephanie slowly learning how to do a better job at bounty hunting by chasing bad guys, picking up less challenging bail jumpers, shooting her gun after a fair bit of target practice, running into Morelli and experiencing all of that fun frustration/sexual tension, and meeting the wonderful Lula (a local hooker who starts out as a source of info for Stephanie and, later in the series, becomes her sidekick).
The good stuff doesn’t stop there. She also gets tips on breaking & entering from Ranger and unwelcome visits from crazy Ramirez. She steals Morelli’s car and he gets even by breaking into her apartment and handcuffing her to the shower (naked). There are explosions, Grandma Mazur antics, and high jinks galore.
Midpoint (pages 139 – 140): False defeat. And, yet, even after all she’s learned, not only is Stephanie unable to capture Morelli for profit, she’s also continued to attract the attention of psycho Ramirez who, at this point in the story, calls her parents’ house, wanting to reach her. Stephanie realizes she’s truly not safe.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 141 – 214): With Ramirez stalking her, money issues persisting, and Morelli still on the loose, Stephanie has bad guys closing in from more than one direction. Some of her things are stolen from another skip she’s chasing, who isn’t as easy to catch as the last guy. Ranger realizes she needs to get better at apprehending these criminals and forces her to get more serious about her gun and defense training. Ramirez attacks Lula for talking to Stephanie and brutalizes her badly enough for Lula to be hospitalized. Morelli offers Stephanie a partnership, but even with the two of them working together, there’s danger at every turn.
All Is Lost (pages 214 – 215): Stephanie and Morelli have problems getting the information they need to convict Ramirez. No one admits to knowing enough to help them, and even Lula, out of fear, won’t testify against Ramirez. The case is all but lost. Whiff of death. Stephanie won’t be able to earn enough money now nor will she be safe from Ramirez, and Morelli won’t be able to prove his innocence nor will he be cleared of the crime he didn’t commit.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 216 – 231): Stephanie takes stock of the situation they’re in. The previous bounty hunter, whose job Stephanie had been filling in for initially, returns now. He wants the files on the skips (including Morelli’s) that she’d been working on in his absence. She doesn’t want to give up, but she has very little to show for her efforts thus far.
Ramirez sneaks up on her, threatens her, and then hits her. She gets him with her defense spray and his manager comes running out to intervene. But that night, she’s scared, lonely, and so anxious that she sleeps with her defense spray next to her, along with her portable phone, her gun, and even her pet hamster. She’s not sure if anyone—not even Morelli—will be able to protect her.
Break into Three (pages 231 – 233): Morelli wakes her up with a sweet phone call. He says he has some fugitive-like errands to run, but he’ll be back. Meanwhile, Morelli’s car, which Stephanie had “commandeered” earlier, has been parked in her apartment’s outside lot. The prior bounty hunter breaks into the car, thinking he’ll be able to get some tracking info on Morelli. Instead, the car blows up and kills him. Stephanie realizes immediately that the car bomb was actually meant for her.
Finale (pages 234 – 286): Going back to the line “What’s one more lunatic shooting at you?”—the theme of knowing how life’s already dangerous and that you’re going to have to deal with crazies no matter what—well, that rings true here. The theme is fully incorporated in the finale, as the A and B Stories cross, with plenty of lunacy, unpredictability, and bail-bondswoman heroics.
Stephanie deals with the seriousness of being a target and having someone try to kill her (yet again) and feels a growing fondness for Morelli. She still turns him in for the bond money the minute she has the chance, although she believes he’s innocent and plans to prove that. The killer finds her and she even gets shot in the leg, but she manages to shoot back and kill the killer, prove Morelli’s innocence so he can be cleared, and get the big payout she’s earned by capturing her skip.
Morelli, while displeased with her actions at first, does relent and offer her his friendship. And Stephanie is rightfully proud of herself for having transitioned into a professional bounty hunter.
Final Image (page 287): Morelli apologizes for having committed yet another teenage offense, which bookends the Opening Image with a reference back to their shared youth. She hadn’t known about this additional insult, and the two of them end the novel with flirtatious bickering about her longstanding grudge against him.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST:
Written by: Oscar Wilde
Publisher: Avon Books, 1965 (my edition), play first performed in February 1895
Total pages: 160
STC Genre: Fool Triumphant (with a touch of Buddy Love, thanks to the triple romances)
How does The Importance of Being Earnest hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the classic play:
The comic genius of Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) has been lauded for generations, and his witty masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, has inspired countless stage play revivals, multiple film and television adaptations, radio shows, and even musicals/operas. When a playwright describes his own work as “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” the audience ought to expect a few hours of pure enjoyment and theatrical escapism.
I’ve personally seen several versions of this story on film, read the play aloud with my high school classmates, and attended about a half dozen live performances of the show—most memorably in 1993 at London’s Aldwych Theatre. The inimitable Dame Maggie Smith (of Harry Potter and Downton Abbey fame) was cast in that production as Lady Bracknell and, as you might imagine with an actress of her caliber, Smith played her character to hilarious perfection. I’d love to see her in that role again—she was brilliant!
The play itself is set in Wilde’s “present day” of 1895, which became a tumultuous and tragic year for him in his real life. However, he was at his professional peak when the play premiered on that Valentine’s Day and even the critics who complained about the “lack of morality” of the characters—given Jack’s and Algernon’s duplicity when it came to their identities and their avoidance of tedious Victorian obligations—were unable to deny Wilde’s talent for farce and social satire.
Although there are actually three romantic parings in this play, I believe the genre fits most neatly into the Fool Triumphant category, rather than in Buddy Love, owing to the story possessing all of the victorious underdog elements present in this STC genre. It has a protagonist who’s a fool, in the sense that Jack/Ernest Worthing is overlooked by society and only his “insider” friend, Algernon, has been paying close attention to his actions. Jack is pitted against an establishment (Victorian society and its norms, in this case, in the form of Lady Bracknell). And there’s most definitely a transmutation that occurs, where our hero becomes someone else and, with it, acquires a new name. However light and fluffy the plot may be, witnessing the triumph of this fool is always great fun.
A quick note on the page numbers. Although the Avon/Bard Book edition has text from page 1 to 160 and includes an introduction at the beginning and critical commentaries at the end, the play portion only runs from page 27 to 109. Thus, the beats below reflect that. Here is my take on them:
Opening Image (page 27): Algernon “Algy” Moncrieff is lounging lazily in his flat while his manservant arranges afternoon tea for the arrival of Algy’s first cousin Gwendolen and her mother Aunt Augusta (aka Lady Bracknell).
Set-Up (pages 27 – 32): The story’s main character, Ernest Worthing, shows up at his friend Algy’s flat, but it’s really Gwendolen he wants to see. He hopes to be there when she arrives, and he tells Algy that he’s in very much love with her and intends to propose that day. Algy, however, says he won’t give his consent to the match. Ernest is both infuriated and perplexed, and he demands to know why.
Theme Stated (page 30): Algernon states, “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” Turns out, there’s quite a lot of uncertainty in regards to all three of the romances in the story, whether the relationships are major or minor ones.
Catalyst (pages 32 – 34): Algy—stepping deftly into his role as a jealous “insider” to Ernest’s “fool”—presents a dilemma for his friend to solve. Algy is in possession of Ernest’s cigarette case, which Ernest thought had been lost. Algy won’t return it to him, however, despite knowing it belongs to him, because the inscription inside reads, “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.” Algy demands an explanation for the difference in name and wishes to know more about this “little Cecily,” too.
Debate (pages 34 – 37): As it happens, Ernest has a secret: He goes by the name Jack in the country, at his estate there, where his young ward Cecily Cardew also lives, but he uses the name Ernest in the city, which he tells Cecily is the name of his younger, troublemaking brother. But, of course, there is no brother, just a convenient person that Jack can use as a device to get himself into the city and away from his country responsibilities.
Algernon confesses to having an ill fictional friend named Bunbury, whose frequent poor health gets Algy out of various social obligations in the city and allows him to go into the country for fun and frolic. Ernest/Jack and Algy debate the necessity of keeping these fictional persons “alive” and the merits/problems of the institution of marriage.
Break into Two (page 37): Aunt Augusta/Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax arrive.
B Story (pages 38 – 40): The first of the three romances (Ernest/Jack’s and Gwendolen’s) begin here. Algy had promised his friend time alone with his fair cousin if Ernest/Jack explained the mystery of the cigarette case inscription and, thus, Algy leads his aunt out of the room and the lovers are alone together.
Fun and Games (pages 40 – 69): Jack proposes to Gwendolen and she, thinking he’s really named Ernest, tells him that she loves him, especially because of his wonderful name. She agrees to marry him and he, not wanting to disappoint her, secretly plans to get christened as “Ernest” as soon as possible. However, all plans for name changes and matrimony are put on hold when Lady Bracknell returns to the room and forbids the match. Gwendolen’s mother, while reasonably accepting of Mr. Worthing’s financials and politics, is not impressed with his inability to locate either of his parents. When Ernest/Jack explains that he’s lost them, Lady Bracknell retorts, “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
These and other delightful witticisms and bantering punctuate the Fun and Games section, which soon transitions from the city into the country. After Jack is forced to explain that he was actually found in a handbag and brought up by a charitable gentleman named Mr. Cardew (whose daughter, Cecily, Jack now has guardianship over), Algy’s aunt leaves in a huff. Gwendolen sneaks back in to talk with Jack and asks for his country address, which Jack tells her. Algy, sneakily eavesdropping, makes note of the address and embarks on a visit to Jack’s country estate… pretending to be Jack’s rascally brother Ernest Worthing.
Meanwhile, beautiful 18-year-old Cecily has been daydreaming for months about Uncle Jack’s mischievous brother. Her infatuation with “Ernest” even has her imagining that the two of them are engaged. Miss Prism, her governess and at one time the writer of an unpublished novel, is unable to get Cecily to focus on her studies. While Miss Prism is off talking to (read: flirting with) the reverend, Dr. Chasuble, who should appear? None other than Algernon-as-Ernest. He is instantly taken with the pretty Cecily. This is a particularly surprising turn of events for Jack, who’d just “killed off” his brother Ernest and has announced his young brother’s death to the governess and the reverend. When Cecily tells Jack that his brother has arrived, Jack is forced to pretend that Algy is, indeed, Ernest. (Alive and well! It’s a miracle!)
Midpoint (pages 70 – 71): False defeat for Jack, who tries to make Algy leave the country estate, but Algy is far too taken with Cecily to do that. Algy’s presence makes it difficult for Jack to get rid of the “Ernest” character he created or to enact the next step in his plan to make Gwendolen his wife, that is, his christening.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 71 – 87): Algernon and Cecily profess their love for each other, and Cecily confesses that she began falling for him the minute she heard that Uncle Jack had a brother named Ernest. This puts Algy in a bind because, of course, he’s not really named Ernest either. He realizes he must get christened at once in order to officially change his name. He departs to find the reverend.
Almost as soon as he’s out of sight, Algy’s cousin Gwendolen arrives in search of Jack. He’s nowhere to be found, so the servant brings Gwendolen to Cecily instead.
The two ladies meet, amicably at first, but they soon discover they’re both engaged to “Mr. Ernest Worthing.” The tea party takes a bad turn—and quickly. When Jack and Algernon finally appear on the scene, they’re able to clear up the misunderstanding of which man is engaged to which woman, but they must also confess that neither of them are actually named Ernest. The ladies bond in solidarity over this deception, leave the men, and furiously escape into the house.
All Is Lost (pages 87 – 90): Both Jack and Algy have lost their fiancées. Jack’s made-up younger brother is no longer, and Algy’s fictitious Bunbury can’t be used as an excuse either. There will be no more “Bunburying.”
Dark Night of the Soul (page 91 – 94): Keeping in mind that this is a classic British farce, “dark” here is a relative term. The men enter the house in search of their women. Gwendolen and Cecily (briefly) grill their beloveds about their intentions and their reasons for lying. Both ladies are stunningly quick to forgive their men, however, the issue of their given names remains a problem. Both Jack and Algy assert that they intend to be christened that very afternoon and will soon each be legitimately known as “Ernest.”
Break into Three (page 94): Lady Bracknell arrives at Jack’s country estate in search of her daughter and confronts both couples: Gwendolen and Jack, along with her nephew Algernon and Cecily, his intended.
Finale (pages 94 – 108): Lady Bracknell insists that an engagement between Gwendolen and Jack is impossible. She confronts Algy, who’s holding Cecily’s hand, and demands to know who the young woman is. Jack explains that Cecily is his ward, and Algy proclaims his love for her and intention of marrying her. Lady Bracknell, while not immediately on board with the idea, soon grows quite fond of Cecily when she realizes what a tremendous inheritance the young lady possesses and gives her consent to the couple. Jack, however, strongly forbids the match, saying that Algy cannot marry Cecily unless he’s allowed to marry Gwendolen.
Lady Bracknell will not relent. Just as she and her daughter are set to depart, the reverend Dr. Chasuble enters and informs Jack and Algy that everything is ready for their christenings. Jack tells him it’s unlikely that service will be necessary now. Dr. Chasuble says that he’ll return to the vestry then, as Miss Prism is waiting for him.
Upon hearing the name Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell becomes quite agitated and insists on meeting the governess at once. Upon the two elder women coming face to face, the story’s major mystery is unraveled. Miss Prism, once the nanny of Lady Bracknell’s sister’s baby, in a moment of distraction, put her three-volume novel in the perambulator and the baby in a handbag, which had been left at Victoria Station.
Stunned by this turn of events, Jack produces the very same handbag that once belonged to Miss Prism and discovers that he was that long-lost baby—the eldest son of Lady Bracknell’s sister and her husband the General. Most surprising of all, this means that Jack is not only Algernon’s older brother, it means he was actually christened after their late father, whose name was Ernest.
Final Image (page 109): Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism embrace. Algy and Cecily embrace. And then Gwendolen and Jack, who is really and truly named Ernest, also embrace. The complete unpredictability of romance is proven in triplicate, and there’s love all around. Jack/Ernest tells Lady Bracknell, who he realizes is his own Aunt Augusta now, that he’s not showing “signs of triviality” as she claims but, rather, he finally understands “the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”
THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY:
Written by: Douglas Adams
Publisher: Pocket Books paperback—original publication in 1979 by Pan Books, based on the BBC radio series from 1978
Total pages: 215
Genre: Dude with a Problem having a dash of Golden Fleece adventure
How does The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the classic novel:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or HG2G, as longtime fans sometimes call it, is a weirdly wonderful and sentimental favorite, even among readers whose literary preferences don’t typically bend toward zany space travel. The novel had its origins in a BBC Radio 4 radio series in the late 1970s. As a science fiction comedy on the airwaves, written by Douglas Adams of Doctor Who and Monty Python fame, it was a huge and immediate hit.
Its popularity continued when published in book form, selling over 250,000 copies in its first three months alone and over fifteen million in Adams’s lifetime. It also inspired a five-book “trilogy,” a television series, a 2005 feature film, a number of stage plays, comics, and a video game. In homage to his beloved story, Adams even had an asteroid named after his main character (18610 Arthurdent) and another one named after himself (25924 Douglasadams). All this, and fans everywhere still celebrate May 25th annually as “Towel Day” in his honor.
The legacy Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001) left us—aside from this cleverly written and long-lasting comedic series, among his other works—is also this short but important message: “Don’t Panic.” I find these reassuring words (located on the front cover of his fictional guide) to be a much-needed reminder to relax and take a deep breath as I deal with whatever I must face next in the world/universe around us.
May Adams’s distinctive sense of humor and insight bring some lightness to you, too, whether you’re reading this story for the first time… or, like me, for the gazillionth.
Here are my take on the beats for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
Opening Image (pages 1 – 3): The introductory pages inform the readers in a delightfully satirical tone what this story will be about, which is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—a remarkable book, slightly cheaper than the great Encyclopedia Galactica and, rather importantly, “it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.” The novel is also about a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions and a house.
Set-Up (pages 5 – 28): The house belongs to Earthman/Englishman/Everyman Arthur Dent, who is 30 years old, single, and works in radio. His house has never been a source of problems for him until very recently (read: just yesterday) when Arthur learned it was scheduled for demolition to make room for a new bypass. Arthur is told by the person about to bulldoze his house that he should have known about this. That the plans have been “on display” for months (in a dark and locked filing cabinet, located in an unused lavatory in a basement of the local planning office, as it turns out). That he has no right to argue about it now.
Arthur is displeased and plants himself in the mud in front of the yellow bulldozer to keep his house from being demolished. Unbeknownst to any of the humans involved in this exchange, their very own Earth is likewise scheduled for demolition. It’s in the direct path of an alien construction fleet set on plowing down our “mostly harmless” planet to make way for a hyperspatial express route through the star system.
No one around is aware of this impending disaster except for Arthur’s good friend, Ford Prefect, who is not an out-of-work actor, as he’s pretended to be for the last five or six years since he and Arthur met. Oh, no. Ford is secretly a roving researcher for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and has been stranded on Earth for the past 15 years. He’s desperate to return to his home planet, which is somewhere “in the vicinity of Betelgeuse,” and has been waiting for any opportunity to escape.
Theme Stated (page 12): When Ford would get overly drunk, longing to be rescued and returned to the place he belonged, policemen would often ask him, “Don’t you think it’s about time you went off home, sir?” To which Ford would inevitably reply, “I’m trying to, baby, I’m trying to.” Finding one’s way home (or to the place one belongs) is a major theme in the course of the novel—for more than one character.
Catalyst (pages 24 – 25): Ford drags Arthur away from his soon-to-be-destroyed house and takes him to the local pub, trying to explain to his human friend that he is, in fact, an alien, and that the world they’re living in is about to end. He buys them both several pints of beer and instructs Arthur to drink up. Ford is acutely aware of the looming catastrophe and knows they’ve only got about 12 minutes left.
Debate (pages 28 – 36): Ford continues trying to explain to his pal that the bulldozing of the house doesn’t really matter in the larger scheme of things. But until Arthur goes outside and sees the gigantic yellow Vogon Construction Fleet with his own eyes, hovering in the sky and intent on imminent planetary destruction (which the Earthlings should have known about already, since the plans for the interstellar bypass had been on display in the planning office on Alpha Centauri for eons…), Arthur doesn’t believe what his friend is trying to tell him.
Ford, of course, is somewhat more prepared than the humans surrounding him. And while he wishes the Vogons weren’t the ones who finally appeared on the scene, Ford will take any rescuers he can get. He is ever ready and knows exactly where his towel is.
Break into Two (page 36): There is momentary worldwide panic, but the Vogons are as merciless in their mission of destruction as the humans so intent on destroying Arthur’s house had been. There is silence, a dreadful noise as Earth is vaporized by the aliens, and then silence again. The Earth is now gone, and the Vogon Construction Fleet sails away through space. For Arthur and Ford, however, the adventure is just beginning.
B Story (pages 37 – 45): Meanwhile, five hundred thousand light-years away, the President of the Imperial Galactic Government, Zaphod Beeblebrox, who just so happens to be a semi-cousin of Ford’s, steals a spacecraft called the Heart of Gold. He has the help of a very intelligent human named Tricia McMillan, aka “Trillian,” a woman Arthur actually chatted up once at party in London. (Arthur also met Zaphod, who was calling himself “Phil” at the time.) The improbable manner in which this spacecraft works will quickly intersect with Ford and Arthur’s intergalactic experience.
Fun and Games (pages 46 – 120): The promise of the premise is in full swing here, complete with space-travel wackiness, numerous near-death experiences, and alien introductions. Due to Ford’s specialized skills and tools, he and Arthur hitch a ride onto the Vogon ship, sparing them from an untimely demise.
Unfortunately, the Vogons aren’t fans of hitchhikers, and their leader Jeltz, after inflicting his notoriously bad poetry upon the pair, throws them into the airlock to be tossed into outer space to perish. Seconds before that happens, Zaphod, Trillian, and the crew aboard the Heart of Gold (which includes an overly cheerful shipboard computer named Eddie, a very depressed robot named Marvin, and a pair of white mice) accidentally rescue Arthur and Ford.
Ford explains nifty things like how the Babel fish translation system works, why packing a towel is so important, and what he came to Earth to do, including further details about the Hitchhiker’s Guide. They learn more about the starship Heart of Gold with its Infinite Improbability Drive, get to know or become reacquainted with their companions (Zaphod, the President of the Galaxy, has acquired a second head and an additional arm since Arthur saw him at that party), and travel at high interstellar speeds toward a mythical planet called Magrathea.
Few in the galaxy—with the exception of Zaphod—believe the lore. He and Ford argue about the planet’s existence until, in fact, the ship’s Improbability Drive brings them right to it.
Midpoint (pages 120 – 121): Normally, this would be a turning point signaling either false victory or false defeat. Douglas Adams, however, manages to openly subvert expectation by telling the reader that too much suspense can be worrisome. Stress and nervous tension have become seriously problematic for individuals across the galaxy and, therefore, the narrator wants to let us all know that, yes, a major disaster will soon strike, but—not to worry!—everything will be okay. Also, Zaphod has been correct all along, and Magrathea does exist.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 122 – 145): Exactly as predicted, there are problems. Big problems. The not-so-mythical planet begins launching nuclear missiles at them. In a last-ditch attempt to save them, Arthur flips on the switch for the ship’s Improbability Drive, which is a move that could kill them all. (Then again, so could Magrathea’s nuclear missiles.) Explosions of noise and light follow.
Against all odds, the missiles are bizarrely transformed into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias, which is the kind of weird thing that can happen with the Improbability Drive. Trillian discovers that her two white mice have escaped, but only she seems upset by this. The team heads out to visit the planet but soon splits up. Zaphod leaves Arthur and Marvin (aka “the Paranoid Android”) to guard the surface entrance to the passageway, while he, Ford, and Trillian go down into the planet’s interior to explore the dark underground tunnels.
All Is Lost (page 145): Whiff of death. A steel shutter traps Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian down below and gasses them until they pass out.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 146 – 149): Meanwhile, up above on Magrathea’s surface, Arthur and Martin wander around moodily in the darkness and cold. His friends are taking a very long time to return, but a small bit of brightness comes in the form of watching a double sunset. After that, however, the night is so inky black that he nearly walks into an old man.
Break into Three (page 150 – 157): The man has the odd name of Slartibartfast, but he is the keeper of a great deal of important information about the planets Magrathea and Earth. He insists (read: threatens) that Arthur follow him—or else.
Finale (pages 158 – 214): A and B Stories cross as the background behind Arthur’s home planet of Earth getting blown up merges with Zaphod’s mission to Magrathea and Trillian’s missing white mice. Slartibartfast takes Arthur via aircar deep into the place where the Magratheans work their creative magic, that is, the area dedicated to the building of other planets. They’re currently constructing a second version of Earth—after all, they made the first one.
Slartibartfast explains that it was the hyperintelligent pandimensional beings (who look a lot like mice) who’d paid for the original Earth and used it as a giant supercomputer. Their prior computer came to the conclusion that the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” was 42. Unfortunately, they were still unclear as to what the correct question was… Enter the original Earth, which was nearly finished computing a definitive response to this when the Vogon Construction Fleet destroyed the planet. But because Arthur was on Earth just moments before it was vaporized, his human brain might yet hold the answer (or, rather, the question to the ultimate answer) that the smart mice have been waiting for.
Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian have reawakened and are sent in to meet these mice leaders (although Trillian brought them from Earth and knew them previously as her pets), and Arthur is reunited with his friends. The mice—named Frankie mouse and Benjy mouse—who have been manipulating their way back to Magrathea, thanks to Trillian, Zaphod, and the Heart of Gold, now have a proposition for Arthur: They’d like to buy his brain and dice it up, but they’ll generously replace it with an electronic one.
Arthur declines with a hard no, but the mice are determined and their thugs attack Arthur and his pals. Then the galactic police show up, wanting to arrest Zaphod for stealing the spaceship, and the cops respond by shooting. Fortunately, up on the surface, Marvin the robot has been complaining so much to the computer on the police’s ship that it shuts down and kills the cops. Then, with the help of Slartibartfast’s aircar, Zaphod, Trillian, Arthur, and Ford are able to make their escape.
Final Image (page 215): Back on the spaceship, Arthur is flipping through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and comes across an entry that says every major civilization tends to pass through the stages of “Survival, Inquiry, and Sophistication,” or, phases known as How, Why, and Where. This is depicted clearly by the questions: “How can we eat?” Then, “Why do we eat?” And finally, “Where shall we have lunch?”
He doesn’t get to read any further because Zaphod interrupts him and suggests they all go out for a quick bite at the Restaurant and the End of the Universe, thus setting the trajectory in motion for the second book in the series to begin and enticing fans from across the galaxy to read on.
Written by: Jane Austen
Publisher: John Murray, London, 1817/1818 — my edition: The Book of the Month Club, Inc. (1996)
Total pages: 228
Genre: Buddy Love
Among those who know me even a little, it’s surprising to exactly no one that, when given the opportunity to write a beat sheet for Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I jumped at it like a single woman at a Regency ball who was just asked to dance by a handsome naval officer.
Pride and Prejudice may have been my first and most passionate literary love, but Persuasion, published half a year after the author’s death, is Austen all grown up. For me and for countless other readers, it’s a story that has lingered and resonated deeply over the decades. We see a mature and self-reflective heroine in Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old highborn lady, who has come to accept that the happiest version of her life and her best chance at romantic love may have already passed her by. In hero Frederick Wentworth, we witness a self-made man, now a wealthy captain in the British Navy, who still harbors a broken heart at the way Anne ended their engagement when she was 19. Their second chance at love plays out in the English countryside, at a seaside resort town, and in the city of Bath.
Here are my take on Blake Snyder’s 15 beats for this classic Austen romance:
Opening Image (pages 1 – 5): Readers are introduced to kind and sensible Anne Elliot, along with her less-than-delightful family members, primarily, her vain, spendthrift father Sir Walter and similarly obnoxious elder sister Elizabeth. The extravagant habits of the latter two are the reason why they’ll soon be departing their grand estate of Kellynch Hall and “retrenching” to rented apartments in the city of Bath.
Set-Up (pages 1 – 27): The history of the Elliot family is explained and the main cast is introduced, notably, Lady Russell, who has been a mother figure to Anne ever since the death of her dear mother 13 years earlier. We also meet Anne’s whiny, hypochondriac younger sister Mary, who married the neighboring Charles Musgrove, and has wild, unsupervised children and entertaining in-laws nearby. There is also sister Elizabeth’s good friend and companion, Mrs. Clay, who will be joining the family in Bath (inadvisedly, according to both Lady Russell and Anne) and the mention of an estranged cousin, William Elliot, who will eventually inherit Kellynch Hall.
Above all, there is Anne’s memory of her long-lost love, Frederick Wentworth, a now-affluent naval captain. He may have forgotten all about her, but she’ll never forget him or the painful decision she had to make when she broke off their engagement eight years earlier on the advice of her father and Lady Russell. They believed it was an unsuitable match, since she was of a higher class and he had no money at the time. Anne, relying on their greater wisdom, acted according to their wishes, but she felt the loss of Frederick acutely.
Theme Stated (page 11): Naturally, the art of persuasion is a major theme throughout the novel, both in present events and in the backstory, but the experience of suffering also runs deeply. When talking about the need for the family to rent out their estate and retrench to Bath for several years in order to save money, Lady Russell, referring to Sir Walter’s constant concern for appearances and need to preserve his rank and position in society, says to Anne, “There will be nothing singular in his case; and it is singularity which often makes the worst part of our suffering, as it always does of our conduct.”
She believes that because so many other titled families have gone to Bath for similar financial reasons, no one will think poorly of Anne’s father or the Elliot family for doing the same. However, the notion that being alone in one’s suffering makes things worse is a concept depicted in several scenarios during the novel and a belief that many of the characters share.
Catalyst (pages 19 – 27): With England currently at peace, their solicitor suggests a rich Navy tenant for Kellynch Hall, specifically, Admiral Croft and his wife Sophia, who are interested in renting the estate. While Sir Walter is, as always, entirely focused on superficialities, like the physical appearance of the potential tenants and their social rank, Anne is particularly affected by this turn of events. Why? Because Sophia Croft is the sister of Frederick Wentworth. Just imagining the possibility that he “may soon be walking here” is enough to throw her world completely off kilter.
Debate (pages 27 – 63): Anne shares Jane Austen’s own dislike of Bath. When her father and sister decide that the two of them, along with the ever-present Mrs. Clay, will go off to Bath first and leave Anne in the area to help out her younger sister Mary and finish up those pesky packing details, Anne is somewhat relieved. However, staying at Uppercross Cottage with Mary and her noisy family is headache-inducing and, furthermore, worrying about the new tenants of her old home is emotionally taxing.
When she meets with the very kind Admiral and Mrs. Croft, Anne learns that Frederick will indeed soon be visiting. She’s not sure what she feels more—excitement or agitation—but she mentally debates what it might be like to see him again after so many years. And then she does see him. It’s a brief and emotionally painful meeting for her, but if she thought the awkwardness would be over quickly, she’s wrong.
Break into Two (page 64): Captain Frederick Wentworth has come to stay at Kellynch Hall for an extended period of time, not merely for a short visit. To make matters worse, he’s openly looking for a wife. (In his opinion, any single woman between age 15 and 30 will do—just not Anne Elliot.) It’s an upside-down world for sure. He’s a well-respected and accomplished man who’s made his fortune and is currently living in her former and very grand house, while she is now significantly poorer and a spinster aunt who’s staying at her sister’s more modest place.
B Story (pages 64 – 66): The second-chance love story begins, but it hardly runs smoothly at first. Here we have the introduction of the Musgrove sisters, Louisa and Henrietta, who are Mary’s sisters-in-law and potential love interests for Frederick. Mr. Hayter, a cousin and neighbor, is also vying for Henrietta’s affection, which complicates matters for the secondary characters. As for Frederick himself, he and Anne are running in the same social circle for the first time, so she has an intimate view of his behavior. He is very outspoken and charming to everyone but Anne. With her, he is coldly civil, and though she understands his lingering resentment, she’s still hurt by it. He claims to want a woman in his life who’s not only sweet tempered, but also, strong and knows her own mind. Someone who won’t be easily persuaded by others.
Fun and Games (pages 64 – 105): This is sparkling Regency romance at its height. Lots of group outings, which provide new settings to display the social dynamics of the cast, along with sharply rendered examples of relationships and marriages for Anne (and the readers) to observe. The Admiral and Mrs. Croft have an enviable marital situation, while Mary and her husband Charles Musgrove are a less compatible pair. Frederick finds out that Charles originally wanted to marry Anne first but, when she refused him, he chose Mary instead. This happened after Anne broke off her engagement with Frederick, so he realizes that she had an opportunity to marry within her acceptable social realm but elected not to. Perhaps she didn’t have such a weak character after all.
Although Louisa Musgrove is widely considered to be the best potential match for Frederick, and he certainly plays the part by flirting with her in Anne’s presence, he remains watchful of Anne, even protective, and he slowly shows signs of warming up to her again—or at least being less silently hostile and dismissive of her.
On an excursion to the seaside town of Lyme, more new characters are introduced, particularly, friends of Frederick’s—Captain and Mrs. Harville and Captain Benwick—the latter of whom has been in a deep depression since the death of his fiancée (Captain Harville’s sister) and is attempting to deal with his suffering and grief through the use of poetry. A handsome man in the area is clearly attracted to Anne, which does not go unnoticed by Frederick, and this person is later revealed to be Anne’s cousin/her father’s heir, William Elliot.
Additionally, Louisa’s flirtation with Frederick takes a perilous turn when she stubbornly insists on jumping off some high steps by the shoreline and expecting Frederick to catch her. He manages to do so the first time, but when she recklessly does it again, he isn’t able to get to her soon enough. She falls and is knocked unconscious. While the other women in their group become hysterical, Anne remains calm, gives clear and sensible instructions, and is genuinely able to be of help.
Frederick can’t help but admire this quality in her, and he realizes that he isn’t so fond of women who have such strong opinions that they ignore good sense. Sometimes being open to persuasion is a smart thing. The doctor says that Louisa must stay in Lyme while she heals, so Frederick drives Anne and Henrietta back to Uppercross to break the news of Louisa’s head injury to the Musgrove parents.
Midpoint (page 105): False victory. Anne is gratified that Frederick respects her opinion and judgment again, and it shows in his behavior toward her on the return home. It’s bittersweet, of course, because he’ll need to drive back to Lyme at once and they’ll be separated by distance and unable to talk further. Despite the fact that all signs point to Frederick having a romantic attachment to Louisa, Anne feels she can be content (kinda) with merely being respected acquaintances/friends with Frederick once more. An interesting side note, the end of Chapter 12 marks the spot where the novel, originally published in two volumes, is split—a Jane Austen-style cliffhanger, intended to get readers to buy the second book!
Bad Guys Close In (pages 105 – 171): Anne goes to stay at Lady Russell’s house for a while. Despite Anne’s longstanding respect for the older woman, she finds it increasingly difficult to care about the qualities Lady Russell values in others, which are strikingly similar to the sorts of things Anne’s vain father prizes so highly—money, appearance, rank, etc. Anne tells Lady Russell about Frederick’s attachment to Louisa Musgrove and, consequently, the two of them pay a visit to the Crofts.
Despite the warmth and kindness of the couple, it’s hard for Anne to see her old home occupied by others. Nevertheless, life marches on. She gets news that Louisa is recovering, and she also receives word from her sister in Bath that their father has reconciled with their cousin William Elliot. Much as Anne dislikes that city, the time has now come for her to travel there and join Sir Walter and Elizabeth. Lady Russell accompanies her on the journey.
A series of bad things start happening in Anne’s world. At Camden Place in Bath, Anne’s father and her elder sister remain unchanged. They still care only about social standing and appearances, and neither are taking their family’s financial situation seriously. They persist in overspending and focusing on trying to impress important people in the city. Anne is suspicious of this sudden reconciliation with William Elliot, who is supposedly still in mourning over the death of his wealthy but not lower-class wife. He’s got money now, will still inherit Kellynch Hall someday, and had claimed years ago not to care about titles, so what could he possibly want with them? Anne thinks that, perhaps, he’s interested in her sister Elizabeth. She finds him to be polished, well-mannered, and reasonable when she is finally formally introduced to him, and Lady Russell is utterly charmed by the man, too, but the older woman shares none of Anne’s suspicions about his motives.
The continued presence of Mrs. Clay, however, remains problematic for them both. Not only is it socially improper, but there is a concern that Mrs. Clay might be trying to form an attachment to Anne’s father, which would be dangerous on many levels to Elizabeth and Anne. It could put the Elliot sisters in a precarious financial and social position, particularly if Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay married and had a child together.
It turns out that William Elliot is interested in courting Anne, not her sister, a development Lady Russell encourages. Although Anne is willing to listen to her longtime family friend, she’s thinking much more for herself these days and reflecting on the type of friendships and relationships she values. This is further underscored by Anne witnessing the way her father and Elizabeth are forever sucking up to their much wealthier and higher ranking cousins, Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret, women that Anne considers awkward, unaccomplished, and uninteresting. Cousin William Elliot, for all his overt propriety, follows suit.
In contrast, Anne prefers to spend her time visiting Mrs. Smith, an old school friend who’s now a widow, as well as poor and crippled by illness. When her husband had been alive, Mrs. Smith was rich and welcomed in privileged society, but these days she’s excluded. She’s still cheerful and maintains her good manners despite her situation, which Anne admires. Mrs. Smith also actively listens to the gossip in Bath and is willing to pass along some of this to her friend, a gift of information that proves helpful later.
In a surprising romantic twist, it turns out that Louisa Musgrove is newly engaged… but not to Frederick Wentworth! Instead, during Louisa’s convalescence in Lyme, she and Captain Benwick hit it off (over poetry, no less), which cheers Anne a bit because it means Frederick is still free, even if the two of them do not find their way back to each other.
The Crofts arrive in Bath and, shortly thereafter, so does Frederick. His sister, thinking he might be disappointed over Louisa’s change of heart (he isn’t), suggests that he look for a new lady love in the city. However, soon after his arrival, he spots Anne, and notices she’s not alone. Cousin William Elliot is seemingly attached to her and, though Anne and Frederick speak briefly, William quickly whisks her away, but not before Frederick is snubbed by Elizabeth and Lady Russell. This pains Anne. She knows he’s a man of good character and believes her friends and family should grant him the respect he deserves.
All Is Lost (pages 170 – 171): Whiff of death (for the relationship).There is a big concert and all the “important people” in Bath are there. Frederick and Anne are both in attendance, but they’re prevented from sitting near each other because William Elliot is monopolizing her time and attention. Misunderstandings and bad timing are at play here for the hero and heroine. William hints to Anne that he’s planning to propose to her, which is an event that would inspire celebration by those in her inner circle. Obviously, at least to the readers, her heart is still elsewhere.
The object of her affection, however, sees Anne being seriously courted by William and leaves the concert early. For Frederick Wentworth, despite his acquired wealth and the way his hard work has enabled him to rise up through society, Anne’s family is only just beginning to acknowledge him. He doesn’t believe they’ll ever consider him to be good enough for her, and he may have lost her to William anyway, so all is lost.
Dark Night of the Soul (page 171): Anne, while flattered by her cousin William’s attentions, is confused by Frederick’s sudden departure and greatly disappointed by his absence. She has the stunning epiphany that, despite everything that came before—all the anger, resentment, and frustration on Frederick’s part—he’s jealous of her relationship with William. She needs to somehow tell him that her heart is not attached to any man other than him, but accomplishing this in her constrained society is extremely difficult.
Break into Three (page 171): Jane Austen was never one to trust swift or careless declarations of passion. She would have considered such behavior to be improper. Frederick, if he’s to be believed as a true hero, must display his affection for Anne gradually and with prudence. And she, too, must show her enduring love for him, not as the result of a whim, but as the deep and reasoned longing it truly is. One that has stood the test of time and remained steadfast.
Finale (pages 171 – 223): Anne visits Mrs. Smith again, and she tells Anne what she knows about William Elliot. He had once been a close friend of her late husband, although not a good one. He led Mr. Smith into living with greater extravagance than he could afford and, as the executor of his will, William refused to do his duty and, instead, left all the debts for her to pay.
Now that William has money, thanks to the death of his rich wife, his current plans revolve around wanting the baronet title and Kellynch Hall, both of which he would lose if Sir Walter were to marry Mrs. Clay and have a son with her. Anne is saddened by William’s cold-heartedness, greed, and cunning, but she’s grateful to her friend for the insights.
A few of the Musgroves come to town, happy to be celebrating the joys of life and in search of wedding clothes for Henrietta and Louisa. Their arrival delays Anne’s intention of telling Lady Russell about William’s manipulations, but from the window, Anne spots him and Mrs. Clay having a private conversation outside and wonders what other underhanded schemes are afoot on the streets of Bath.
Anne and Frederick are finally in the same room together but engaged in different activities. Anne and Captain Harville are having a conversation about the constancy of love, while Frederick writes a letter nearby and remains attentive to their discussion, albeit silently. Anne claims women are more faithful than men. That they love longest, even when all hope is gone. Harville opposes this view and says that men have the stronger passions. Nevertheless, they agree to disagree.
During this good-natured conversation, the eavesdropping Frederick is inspired to finally own up to his true feelings for Anne and declares his love for her in one of literature’s most famous and romantic letters: “I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me that I am not too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever…”
Frederick hands her this note and walks out the door, leaving Anne to devour the contents and desperately wish to speak with him so she, too, could express her feelings. She manages this feat at last, by making a beeline for home and, en route, finding Frederick. Both confess to each other that their love never wavered. Eight years ago, Anne yielded to duty and broke their engagement, but she could not be similarly persuaded to do anything but follow her own heart now.
Final Image (pages 223 – 228): Anne and Frederick announce their engagement to the world—friends, families, and foes—and the narrator sums up everybody’s reactions. Readers learn that William Elliot was even more dastardly than we thought (with plans to seduce Mrs. Clay to keep her from marrying Sir Walter), that Frederick is able to help Mrs. Smith reclaim some of her lost money, and that he and Anne are delightfully happy and well-suited to marriage. They belong together, just like they (and millions of devoted Austen readers) always knew.
THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY:
Written by: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Publisher: Random House, Inc., 2008 — my edition: 2009 Dial Press Trade Paperback
Total pages: 274
STC! Genre: Buddy Love
Make no mistake, while this #1 New York Times bestselling novel was certainly branded as upmarket historical fiction, at its essence this is a book for booklovers. Told in epistolary form, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows is a collective love letter to the transformative power of books and to the avid readers who fall under their spell.
From the back cover: “January 1946: Writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German Occupation, and a society as extraordinary as its name.”
A friend gave me a paperback copy of this novel the year after its release, and for longer than I’m willing to admit, I put off reading it. It had been getting so much buzz. Too much, in my opinion. Yet another heavily WWII-ish book, I thought. Haven’t they published enough of those? Even if the premise sounded intriguing, I figured it would probably be more depressing than uplifting.
And all those glowing reviews? My cynical self doubted I’d be nearly as charmed. So, let me be the first to admit I was wrong. When I finally cracked open the novel, I fell so deeply in love with the characters and the storyline that I mimicked the behavior of the Newsday reviewer who professed, “I could not put the book down. I have recommended it to all my friends.”
If you’re a booklover and haven’t yet read this story, please consider giving it a try. And for all who enjoy Blake Snyder’s beat sheet breakdowns, here are the beats as I see them for this masterfully written novel:
Opening Image (pages 1 – 4): Comedic writer and Englishwoman Juliet Ashton sends a letter to her editor/publisher Sidney Stark, telling him that she’s no longer motivated to write her current manuscript or continue penning humorous stories under her pseudonym. She was glad to make readers laugh during the war years, but now she wants to write something more substantial and to be taken seriously.
Set-Up (pages 4 – 23): We’re introduced to Sidney by his amusing yet genuinely affectionate responses to Juliet. We also meet via letter Juliet’s best friend Sophie—who’s also Sidney’s sister, obnoxious gossip journalist Gilly Gilbert (“a twisted weasel,” according to Sidney), Juliet’s wealthy suitor Markham Reynolds, and Dawsey Adams, a man who writes to Juliet from the island of Guernsey regarding a book by Charles Lamb that once belonged to her. Dawsey discovers Juliet’s former address in the book and wishes to obtain more copies of Lamb’s work. Thus, an offbeat but earnest correspondence begins between the two of them, piquing Juliet’s interest in the island and, through Dawsey, introducing her to Elizabeth McKenna and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Theme Stated (page 23): There are multiple themes in the novel revolving around loyalty to others while still remaining true to oneself, war/humanity, honesty/integrity, and connection to other people via literature. However, the concept of what makes a family—biology versus choice—runs deep throughout the story. Sidney demonstrates this early, and Juliet comes to fully embrace it as the novel progresses.
In his latest letter, Sidney has just fired his secretary for lack of confidentiality regarding Juliet’s home address and book tour itinerary, which leads to Markham knowing where she lives. Sidney also defended Juliet’s actions against Gilly (she threw a teapot at him) because of the deceitful journalist’s behavior.
Sidney Stark is protective and treats Juliet as a valued sibling, not merely as a writer at his publishing house. He writes, “My dear, I can’t promise you plenty or prosperity or even butter, but you do know that you’re Stephens & Stark’s—especially Stark’s—most beloved author, don’t you?” She’s more than a professional colleague to him; she’s like family.
Catalyst (pages 21 – 23): Honoring Juliet’s desire to write something more weighty than her prior books and to finally publish something under her own name, Sidney has news for her: the Times would like to hire her to write a long and serious article for their literary supplement.
Debate (pages 23 – 47): This writing opportunity leads Juliet to seek a perfect subject for her article. After learning from the Times that they would like the series to be about the “practical, moral, and philosophical value of reading,” and that Juliet’s contribution would focus on the philosophical part, she sends a letter to Dawsey asking if it would be acceptable to the members of his Literary Society to include information about them in her piece. Dawsey is immediately delighted by the prospect and encourages her to pursue it. However, one of the members, Amelia Maugery, has reservations based on Juliet’s previous comedic books. Amelia fears the Society will be ridiculed in Juliet’s article, so she asks for character references and for Juliet to share her intentions for the piece. Juliet provides these to Amelia’s satisfaction.
Break into Two (pages 48 – 51): As soon as Amelia approves Juliet’s request, letters from various members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are about to flood in. There is much enthusiasm and interest from most of the Society members in sharing their group’s enchanting history.
B Story (pages 49 – 51): Although there’s definitely a slow-burn love story that blossoms between Juliet and Dawsey (despite Markham’s persistence in trying to court her), the B Story is also about the background of the Literary Society and the mystery surrounding what happened to Elizabeth McKenna during and after the war. There’s a romantic element to that historical tale, too, as Elizabeth fell in love with one of the occupying German soldiers, Captain Christian Hellman, and their daughter Kit (now age four) was the result of their committed relationship. Christian planned to return to the island to marry Elizabeth, but he died just before Kit’s birth, and Elizabeth, who served as a nurse, was imprisoned and sent to the mainland for helping one of the local laborers. No one knows where she is now, but the Society members share in the duty of caring for Kit.
Fun and Games (pages 52 – 155): So. Many. Letters! Juliet begins receiving regular missives from the members of the Society and is completely captivated by the Guernsey residents, their quaint island, the continually fascinating tales from multiple perspectives of what happened there during the war, and the mystery of Elizabeth’s whereabouts. This is also where the open courtship between Markham and Juliet serves as a foil for the far more subtle courtship between Juliet and Dawsey. From the start of the novel through the Fun and Games beat, the latter pair is acquainted only via their letters, yet they connect on a deep level through their love of literature.
By contrast, Markham/“Mark” is a wealthy and powerful man who insists on having Juliet’s attention in person. She grows increasingly curious about Guernsey and the Society, even receiving Sidney’s permission to visit the island for research, and she makes plans to go. However, Mark insists on trying to get her to stay. He proposes marriage to her and Juliet, while conflicted, neither accepts nor turns him down directly. Instead, she says she needs time to think and continues to make arrangements for her visit to Guernsey.
Mark is not someone who takes no for an answer, and he’s displeased both by her lack of immediate commitment and by her determination to go on this trip. Juliet is an independent woman, however, who might be tempted by conventionality, but she has a will and spirit all her own. She won’t be deterred from leaving London as planned.
Midpoint (pages 157 – 164): False victory. Juliet arrives on the island of Guernsey and finally meets Dawsey and the members of the Society, most of whom welcome her warmly.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 165 – 208): Juliet gets to know the residents of the island and sees firsthand the way Guernsey was ravaged by the war. She learns further details about the history—particularly as it relates to Kit’s mother, Elizabeth McKenna; attends her first Literary Society meeting; plays frequently with Kit, since Juliet is staying in Elizabeth’s cottage during her visit; and starts to become a part of their community. She writes to Sidney and lets him know that she’s gathering material for her article and, possibly, also for a book. She asks if he can send her some paper dolls for Kit, which his new secretary (Billee Bee) does.
Unfortunately, not all is well. The Society receives a letter from a Frenchwoman named Remy, who bears bad news of Elizabeth’s fate. Remy and Elizabeth were both held at a German concentration camp, and Elizabeth was executed. Remy heard about the Society and about Kit from the spirited Elizabeth, and she wanted them all to know how much Elizabeth loved them. Everyone in the Society mourns this loss. Dawsey and Amelia go to France to meet Remy during her recovery and encourage her to come to Guernsey. Juliet volunteers to care for Kit while they’re away, and her maternal feelings toward the young girl grow even more.
Sidney comes to visit the island and witnesses many positive changes in Juliet. After reading her pages thus far, he offers editorial suggestions that would improve the manuscript. He’s keenly aware that if she were to marry a man like Mark, she wouldn’t be able to continue writing. But even from a distance, Mark persists in trying to convince Juliet to marry him, despite being spotted dancing with other women and his disinterest in everything Juliet is learning and doing on Guernsey.
All Is Lost (pages 209 – 211): Whiff of death. Just as Juliet and Dawsey are getting close enough for him to potentially reveal his feelings for her (and maybe even kiss her, which she would love), Mark shows up on the island unexpectedly and puts an immediate end to their emotionally intimate moment.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 212 – 214): Juliet breaks off her relationship with Mark once and for all, but her sadness is for Dawsey, not for Mark. She second guesses her interpretation of Dawsey’s behavior, unable to tell if he’s truly interested in her romantically or if, perhaps, his heart belongs to someone else. Juliet, however, fell for him long ago and is finally willing to admit this to her best friend.
Break into Three (pages 215 – 222): Juliet learns additional information about Elizabeth’s story that gives Juliet some needed background to work on her own book, and Remy arrives on the island, changing the social dynamics.
Finale (pages 222 – 273): The bonds between the Society and the former outsiders—Juliet, Sidney, and Remy—are strengthening. One member of the Society, Isola Pribby, with the help of a book Sidney sent her, has taken up the study of phrenology, which becomes a source of amusement among the Guernsey residents. Isola is neither an adept reader of “head bumps” nor is she particularly perceptive about the relationships and emotions of those around her. Inadvertently, though, Isola’s attempts at flexing her detective skills are the means by which Juliet eventually guesses Dawsey’s true feelings. On the way to this realization, Juliet continues to work on her manuscript, which is turning into a book-length biography of Elizabeth McKenna’s life.
Her attachment to Kit grows even stronger, leading to Juliet’s desire to formally adopt Kit. Several Society members join forces to defeat a threat in the form of Billee Bee, who they discover took the position as Sidney’s temporary secretary as a way to help her lover, Gilly Gilbert, exact his revenge on Sidney. Billee Bee and Gilly’s underhanded plot involved getting ahold of some original letters by Oscar Wilde and publishing them before Sidney could. Fortunately, the good members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society learned of their deceit just in time.
And though it was a long time coming, Juliet, who frequently flouts the accepted gender roles of the 1940s, manages to overcome her insecurities regarding Dawsey’s feelings and chooses to pursue him. With a supportive spouse who values her intellect and independence, a woman like Juliet can have both a good marriage and an excellent career. Recognizing this, Juliet proposes to Dawsey, who happily accepts.
Final Image (pages 273 – 274): In one last letter to Sidney, Juliet writes asking (more like demanding, really) that he return to Guernsey to give her away at the wedding. Juliet and Dawsey’s story is about to begin, which she says may inspire whatever book she writes next.
ROMANCING MISTER BRIDGERTON:
Written by: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon Books, mass market paperback, copyright 2002
Total pages: 370
Genre: Buddy Love
Dear Reader, it’s time to peel off your white gloves, put down your fan or untie your cravat (don’t worry, I’ll wait), and delve into the story structure of Julia Quinn’s delightful novel, Romancing Mister Bridgerton!
While the original “Bridgerton” book series isn’t nearly as G-rated as, say, your Jane Austen’s brand of historical romance, for readers who love to escape into the Regency/Georgian period, there’s wit, charm, family drama, and oh so many sizzling scenes to be found across the novels. Fans of the new Netflix TV series (season one is based on the first of the Bridgerton books, The Duke and I, and a forthcoming second season has been confirmed) will likely enjoy the novels, too, even while noting the differences between the books and the television adaptation.
For novelists and screenwriters who share my love of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, Quinn’s books have stellar pacing and strong story structure, which make them tremendously fun to break down. This particular novel, Romancing Mister Bridgerton, is the fourth in the series, and it happens to be my personal favorite. Take a peek below at the back cover copy:
Everyone knows that Colin Bridgerton is the most charming man in London . . .
Penelope Featherington has secretly adored her best friend’s brother for . . . well, it feels like forever. After half a lifetime of watching Colin Bridgerton from afar, she thinks she knows everything about him, until she stumbles across his deepest secret . . . and fears she doesn’t know him at all.
Colin Bridgerton is tired of being thought of as nothing but an empty-headed charmer, tired of the notorious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who can’t seem to publish an edition without mentioning him. But when Colin returns to London from a trip abroad, he discovers nothing in his life is quite the same—especially Penelope Featherington! The girl who was always simply there is suddenly the girl haunting his dreams. When he discovers that Penelope has secrets of her own, this elusive bachelor must decide . . . is she his biggest threat—or his promise of a happy ending?
While it’s been exciting as a longtime fan of the books to hear of the warm reception the Netflix series has received, I’m also pleased that such attention has turned to popular romance fiction. I hope the enthusiasm for the genre will continue. Of course, as a writer of romance—albeit contemporary, not historical—I’ll admit to being pretty biased.
I’d initially come across Romancing Mister Bridgerton just a few months after its publication in 2002 and before I knew of the existence of the prior novels. Immediately upon finishing this fourth book, though, I went back to devour the three earlier stories, and then I snapped up the subsequent books in the series as soon as they were released. As an aspiring fiction writer in July 2003—and still five years away from getting my debut book contract with Kensington—I attended my very first Romance Writers of America’s National Conference in New York City where one of the week’s highlights was a huge multi-author book signing. Julia Quinn was there, and I couldn’t wait to meet her. I babbled, of course, about how much I loved all the Bridgertons and asked her to sign my stack of paperbacks. She was gracious then, and she’s continued to be so at other conferences and events in the many years since.
As Quinn herself has said of her books (quoting here from a December 29, 2020 interview on Good Morning America), “I’m probably not going to change the world, but what I really want to do is change your afternoon.” And that, in my opinion, she has certainly achieved with her compelling and compulsively readable novels.
So, let’s slip into the ballroom and mix in with the members of London’s high society, aka, the ton. Here’s my take on Blake Snyder’s beats for this steamy historical romance:
Opening Image (pages 1 – 4): In the Prologue, two days before her sixteenth birthday in April 1812, Penelope Featherington falls in love and discovers a reason to dream. She inadvertently causes Colin Bridgerton to fall off his horse in the park, but far from the anger she expects, his good-natured reaction endears him to her for all time. She knows it’s a hopeless crush and nothing could possibly come of it, but she likewise realizes even then that no other man would ever be able to compare to him.
Set-Up (pages 1 – 48): Fast forward 12 years to the spring of 1824. In the eyes of her community, Penelope is officially an “old maid” at the age of 28. Her best friend, who happens to be Colin’s kid sister Eloise Bridgerton, is similarly unmarried and a beloved confidante of the heroine. However, Penelope doesn’t disclose her longstanding infatuation for Colin to her BFF. The two ladies have simply resigned themselves to being spinsters together.
The readers meet Penelope’s cold and dismissive mother, her other sisters, the entire Bridgerton clan, and several key members of society, like the infamous Lady Danbury. And from the pages of her witty but often cutting gossip rag, we’re also introduced to the mysterious Lady Whistledown, who anonymously reports on the goings on in town and spares no one—Penelope and Colin included—from her keen observations and frequent criticisms.
Colin, now 33 years old and a determined bachelor, has just returned from his latest excursion abroad and must deal with his formidable widowed mother and her near-constant petitions to find a bride and get married. As is often the case in Regency-era novels, one or both protagonists strongly resist this idea, and Colin is no exception.
Theme Stated (page 27 and page 54): One might say that “true love conquers all” is the underlying theme for every genre romance. This fits here, of course, but there are also other threads hidden between the pages. It surprised me when rereading the book to realize what a significant role the art of strategic thinking plays in this novel, particularly the necessity of persistence when making long-range plans and stubbornly adhering to one’s vision. On page 27, Eloise says to Penelope, “Tenacity can be a very good thing, at the proper time.” Penelope replies sarcastically, “Right, and at the improper time, it’s an absolute nightmare.” There’s also another strikingly relevant theme revolving around one’s true identity that pops up on page 54, shortly after Lady Danbury sparks the “unmasking” storyline in the Catalyst below. Lady Danbury turns to Penelope and says, “Isn’t it nice to discover that we’re not exactly what we thought we were?” This observation has profound resonance—not only for the hero and heroine, but also for a considerable number of their friends, family, and acquaintances.
Catalyst (pages 47 – 48): Lady Danbury offers the princely sum of 1,000 pounds to the person who can unmask the elusive Lady Whistledown. This creates a cascade of unexpected problems for the protagonists, even while drawing them closer together.
Debate (pages 49 – 100): Colin and Penelope share a familiarity and respect that has developed over more than a decade of friendly acquaintanceship. They find humor in each other’s company and banter frequently, but until now, it has been an entirely platonic relationship—at least from Colin’s viewpoint. The two of them debate the concept of popularity, which Colin has always enjoyed in great measure, while Penelope, as one of the ton’s resident wallflowers, most certainly did not. The concept of how much one should care about what others think versus being immune to society’s opinion is a dichotomy that plays heavily in their differing perspectives.
However, it turns out that in some matters Colin is not quite as confident as he’s always projected. When Penelope accidentally discovers his most recent travel journal and skims a page of it, she’s impressed by the snippet and wants to read more. Colin’s response to her snooping is absolute, uncharacteristic fury. His insecurities emerge—no one was meant to see his writing!—but Penelope is only further intrigued. Turns out, there has been more to him all this time.
She and Lady Whistledown have always been of the opinion that Colin Bridgerton is a charmer, but Penelope realizes he’s also a budding travel writer. That he delights in the perfect turn of phrase, the ideal description of a location, the art of making readers feel like they are in Greece, Cypress, Scotland, etc., right along with him. She suddenly understands a few important things about her longtime love interest: That he has hidden talents, unexpected fears, a dissatisfaction with his life, and quite a temper. She has, perhaps, never really known him at all.
Break into Two (page 101): Their argument causes a temporary rift, but with it, it also creates a fresh awareness between them. Not only must Penelope now see Colin anew, but he’s forced to rethink his opinion of her—namely the fact that he values their friendship significantly more than he thought. This worries him. He can’t figure out what changed in their dynamic to make him feel this way. He emphatically has no interest in marriage! Yet, he’s been back in England for a mere fortnight, and this woman, who was always at the fuzzy periphery of his life, has suddenly come into sharp focus—and now her views and emotions matter to him.
B Story (pages 101 – 120): Their friendship transitions to an unexpected love story, as Penelope is curious about these newfound facets of Colin, and he finds that he’s attracted to her in both an undeniable and unsettling way.
Fun and Games (pages 101 – 152): Regency/Georgian romance joins forces here with light mystery. Colin and Penelope’s early courtship is magnified by the unexpectedness of this experience for them both and intertwined with the secret of Lady Whistledown’s identity. Male versus female power, self-determination, and the need to have a sense of purpose are explored alongside their flirtation and growing attraction. There is a dreadful musical performance that they both attend. There is dancing at a ball. There is even a great deal of conversation. But most of all, there is a kiss. A very surprising kiss, which is at Penelope’s request, and it rocks Colin’s world. However, he’s unable get a grip on his feelings long enough to tell Penelope that her interpretation—that he kissed her only out of pity—is incorrect.
To add to both of their anxieties is the increased interest in Lady Whistledown and any revelations about her identity. This is worrisome to Colin because he suspects that his very own sister Eloise might be the mysterious woman herself, and that would be a disaster. He fears, if it were true, that she would be cast out of polite society. Lady Whistledown has insulted far too many people in her Society Papers for everyone to just forget the years of literary mockery. It would be a scandal that Eloise—or any well-born woman—wouldn’t be able to overcome. As Eloise’s best friend, Penelope has her own set of concerns about this. But then the most remarkable thing happens in their social circle, and it seems life will soon get easier for all of them.
Midpoint (page 152): False victory. Lady Whistledown announces her retirement. Oh, yes, the speculations about the gossip writer persist, but surely that won’t linger, and there is no longer a reason to be concerned for Eloise’s reputation. Colin and Penelope can now relax and get back to where they left off after that kiss, right?
Bad Guys Close In (pages 153 – 261): Not so fast. A few days later at the next large ball, Penelope’s nemesis, the clever but mean-spirited Cressida Twombley, claims she’s Lady Whistledown. Colin is certainly surprised, but mostly he’s relieved it’s not Eloise. Penelope is in a state of utter disbelief. But Lady Danbury’s skepticism is not only strong, it’s loud. Lady Danbury says she’ll only pay the promised “unmasking” reward to Cressida if she can provide irrefutable proof that’s she’s truly Lady Whistledown.
Colin’s original purpose in attending the ball was to seek out Penelope and apologize to her for his inability to express himself clearly after their kiss. He’s unable to do so, however, because of Cressida’s announcement. So instead, he goes to visit her the following day. Only, before he’s able to get to Penelope’s door, he sees her sneaking away. In a hired carriage, no less. And on her own! That’s pure insanity and incredibly dangerous for any woman of their time. So, of course, he follows her. Colin has no earthly idea where she might be headed or why, but as her carriage winds its way toward the heart of the city, he comes to the increasingly obvious conclusion that he only thought he knew her. Their most recent encounters have convinced him that he never really did. And that feeling will only be amplified by what comes next…
***HUGE SPOILER ALERT for the Bridgerton series below!***
Penelope’s carriage drops her off in front of a church, where Colin spies her hiding an envelope in one of the pew pockets. He confronts her, snatches the envelope, and reads its contents—only to discover that, in fact, Penelope Featherington has been Lady Whistledown all along. Her purpose in publishing this last missive, even though she’d announced her retirement, is to formally contradict Cressida Twombley’s claim of being the witty and anonymous gossip columnist. Penelope is proud of her body of work over these past 11 years, even though no one but her publisher knows her secret. And while she doesn’t want to be named publicly as Lady Whistledown, she absolutely refuses to let someone as detestable as Cressida, someone who’s hurt her so often in the past, take credit for her writing accomplishments.
Colin is understandably floored by all of this and wants to destroy the letter with this final column. However, there’s another feeling rising to the surface of his consciousness that he can’t quite name. An emotion that makes him more uneasy than even his growing affection for Penelope or her surprising identity.
Her hired carriage has departed by the time they leave the church—and without her letter being left for the publisher as planned. Despite Colin’s fury at Penelope for the many ways she’s put her life and her reputation in jeopardy, he insists that she ride home safely in his carriage. They argue over many subjects, and the themes of tenacity and identity both play into their discussion, but there is also the strength of their attraction. Things get hot and heavy in the carriage, and by the time they reach Penelope’s house, Colin can barely compose himself long enough to ask, “Are you going to marry me or not?”
The road to love never runs smooth in a romance novel, but even the path to engagement can be rather rocky. Such is the case here when Penelope’s mother is unable to grasp that Colin is not interested in proposing to Penelope’s younger sister (which their mother had previously hoped for), but in fact, Colin just wants to marry Penelope. There are also additional hurdles involving Colin’s feelings for his future bride. In a life partner, he seeks passion, friendship, intellectual conversations, and a good laugh on occasion. He realizes he has all of these with Penelope… but is that actually love?
He plans to proceed with their engagement regardless, but he debates the strength of his emotions because there’s still something else that’s needling him, and he’s unable to put a finger on it. Although Penelope has come to realize that Colin is far from being the “perfect man” of her youthful daydreams, her love for him is steadfast. But their relationship is gravely tested on the night of the big Bridgerton family party given to officially announce their engagement. The final column by Lady Whistledown, denouncing Cressida Twombley as the mysterious author, has been published despite Colin’s wishes, and it appears in the hands of the ton several days earlier than Penelope had planned. Major problem.
All Is Lost (pages 262 – 275): Whiff of death. There will be no engagement night bliss for Penelope, she fears. Her fiancé’s anger at this betrayal can scarcely be contained until they’re out of view. Didn’t he already make it clear that she shouldn’t publish that final piece? That it might put her reputation at risk? She knew that Colin would never break their engagement once it had been made public, but she likewise could not allow Cressida to continue to accept credit for Penelope’s/Lady Whistledown’s writing. Colin warns her that she’s going to be found out and, still, she stubbornly refuses to concede to his way of thinking. The Lady Whistledown papers are too precious to her. After all, they’ve been her life’s work.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 275 – 277): It’s in that moment that Colin realizes he’s jealous of Penelope. This was the emotion he couldn’t pinpoint before. That, despite her having written anonymity for all these years, she has something that he always wanted for himself: A life’s work that would give him that deep sense of purpose. He also realizes that, despite his anger at her behavior and his fear of the potential repercussions, he genuinely loves and admires her.
Break into Three (pages 278 – 290): The pair seals their commitment to each other with a steamy night of love. They belong together, and both of them are determined to start their happily ever after as quickly as possible. They’ll be married soon.
Finale (pages 291 – 367): Of course, the fact that wedding bells are in the air for Colin and Penelope does little to stop the ton from contemplating who Lady Whistledown might be, since it’s not Cressida Twombley. However, the happy couple is allowed some fun at first. There are dress fittings, shopping excursions, innumerable preparations, and the joyous ceremony itself. There is also a growing realization on Colin’s part that if he’s to feel as comfortable in his own skin as he’d like, he needs to have the courage to pursue his writing passions. Penelope’s bravery has inspired him. He finally works up the nerve to ask her if she’ll read his travel journals and offer editorial suggestions. She agrees with pleasure.
Unfortunately, Cressida is almost as smart as she is cruel, and she’s never forgotten an insult. She pieces together the clues and is the only person who figures out that Penelope and Lady Whistledown are one and the same. Desiring both cash and revenge, Cressida tries to blackmail Penelope into giving her 10,000 pounds of hush money, otherwise she’ll tell the ton the big secret and the newlyweds will be ruined.
Penelope has no idea what to do, but when she finally confides in Colin, he comes up with a plan to silence Cressida—one that capitalizes on his understanding of popularity and his experience as a beloved Bridgerton. Colin is proud of his new wife and wants the world to know this. He intends to tell society the truth himself. And, thus, the strength of a sincere and well-worded speech, plus the power of a loving and well-connected family, come to the rescue. Even Lady Danbury couldn’t have been more pleased by the big reveal.
Final Image (pages 368 – 370): The following year in 1825, while Penelope is expecting their first child, Colin is excited by the arrival of his first literary baby—his newly published travel book, An Englishman in Italy, with several more releases on the way. Penelope finds herself playing around with a new writing project of her own—a novel tentatively entitled The Wallflower.
THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY:
Written by: Matt Haig
Publisher: Viking/Penguin Random House, 2020
Total pages: 288 print pages (hardcover)
Genre: Out of the Bottle
Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library was one of my favorite reads of the past year. I know I’m not alone in this because it was a New York Times bestseller, a No. 1 Sunday Times bestseller, and a “Good Morning America” Book Club Pick. It has nearly 40,000 five-star reviews on Amazon to date (it’s been on the Amazon Charts for 22+ weeks and was their Best Book of October, too), and it even won the 2020 Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction.
But I’ve been indifferent to literary accolades and mega-selling titles before. Not so with this novel. I first read it about seven months ago and haven’t stopped recommending it since… to pretty much anyone who’ll listen to me… and with a zealousness approaching that of Flo the Progressive Lady with her TV insurance ads. For so many reasons, not the least of which is the accessible storytelling style, making it a fast read for teens and adults alike and providing a jumping off point for deeper discussions, I truly appreciated this book.
Check out the official description below:
“Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”
Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?
In The Midnight Library, Matt Haig’s enchanting new novel, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.
The Washington Post called The Midnight Library: “A feel-good book guaranteed to lift your spirits.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Here’s my take on Blake Snyder’s beats for this absorbing and hopeful novel about life, love, and the endless human search for happiness—a search that seems to begin and end with an understanding of one’s personal perspective.
Opening Image (pages 1 – 2): Nineteen years before Nora Seed decided to die, she was just a kid in the small English town of Bedford playing chess in the school library with Mrs. Elm, the kindly and encouraging librarian. It was on that day that a phone call changed Nora’s life with news of a family tragedy: the death of her father.
Set-Up (pages 3 – 23): Nearly two decades later, at age 35, Nora finds out from an acquaintance—a handsome young surgeon named Ash—that her beloved cat has been hit by a car. Taking care of her cat was one of the few things that made Nora feel needed. She’s consequently late to work the next day and her boss, in a tough-love effort to help her get unstuck in her life, fires her. She’s been working at this little music shop for 12 years and is stagnant. She was a champion swimmer in her teens (before she quit, breaking her ambitious dad’s heart), earned a degree in philosophy, had an ex-fiancé named Dan, and even played in a rock band for a while with her brother Joe, who’s been avoiding her.
However, after the death of her mom a dozen years before, her life has been on pause. She misses her best friend Izzy, who now lives halfway across the world in Australia. Her one piano student is considering dropping out of lessons with her. Even the small sense of purpose she felt in helping deliver her elderly neighbor’s prescription is denied to her when someone else takes on the task. In Nora’s opinion, no one needs her anymore.
Theme Stated (pages 13 – 18): Nora runs into Ravi, who was her brother’s best friend and their former bandmate. He’s still mad about her quitting their band because they were on the verge of signing a big record deal. She claims she’d been having panic attacks and that her ex-fiancé didn’t want her to keep performing, but Ravi disagrees. “I don’t think your problem was stage fright. Or wedding fright. I think your problem was life fright.” Also, paralleling this comment, Nora recalls a quote from her favorite philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you imagined.” But it doesn’t seem possible to Nora that she can do this.
Catalyst (pages 21 – 23): Nora decides she doesn’t want to reach tomorrow. That now is “a very good time to die.” She writes a letter to “Dear Whoever” and swallows a bottle of pills.
Debate (pages 24 – 33): It’s midnight, but the clock is not moving forward. Nora is perplexed by this, particularly when she finds herself in a massive library, where the shelves of books (their covers all varying shades of green) seemingly go on forever. She pulls out one of the books, but a voice behind her tells her to be careful. The voice belongs to Mrs. Elm—or someone who bears a striking resemblance to the old librarian from her school days. Nora asks if she’s in the afterlife, but the librarian says, “Not exactly,” and she goes on to explain that “between life and death there is a library… Every book provides a chance to choose another life you could have lived.” Nora says that she wants to die, but the librarian explains that death doesn’t work this way. Death will come to Nora, not the other way around.
Mrs. Elm instructs Nora that she now has to decide how she wants to live. She’ll need to carefully choose which of the many books/life possibilities she wants to open up and experience. Each book is a portal to an alternate version of her life—all of which would begin at that very moment (midnight in the present day)—and would be based on other choices she’d made over the past 35 years. Which would she explore first? Which of her parallel lives did she want to enter now, to see what could have been? There’s only one book that’s different. It has a grey cover rather than a green one, and it’s called The Book of Regrets.
Break into Two (pages 34 – 35): The Book of Regrets is, according to the librarian, the source of all Nora’s problems, and the solutions to them, too. It lists every single regret she’s ever had in her life, from very minor ones, like choosing to skip exercising one day, to major ones, like neglecting to tell her dad she loved him before he died or breaking up with Dan two days before their wedding.
B Story (pages 36 – 41): Nora has a LOT of regrets. The sheer number weigh on her. The librarian, however, talks her through the process of selecting a regret and the subsequent green-covered book featuring that unlived life path. The A Story is all about Nora’s present-day life and the reasons she chose to overdose. By contrast, the B Story is a buffet of alternate choices, which feature an array of life paths that differ from her current one to varying degrees. It’s somewhat like dating—each life alternative is an example of a different relationship Nora has, not only with the world but, also, with herself.
Fun and Games (pages 42 – 117): The promise of the premise. Nora begins to select her deepest regrets and explore them, starting with the first one: “I wish I hadn’t left Dan.” She’s transported to her life with him, right now, had she not broken their engagement a couple of years earlier. They’re currently married. They own this little pub in the Oxfordshire countryside, just as they’d once planned to do. Maybe, Nora muses, this would have been the perfect life for her after all. Only, it turns out it isn’t. There are details about Dan and her relationship with him that she hadn’t expected. Profound disappointments in his character that she hadn’t consciously realized were a possibility when they were together. Her own body feels different to her, too. Stronger and healthier, perhaps, but definitely more tense.
Nora goes back to the library to choose other lives to experience, hoping to find the one where everything feels happiest and most natural to her. Where there are the fewest overall losses. She tries out the life where she’d kept her cat indoors, so it wouldn’t end up dead in the street. The life where she joins her BFF Izzy in moving together to Australia. The life where she didn’t quit swimming and went on to be an Olympic champion, just like her dad had wanted. In all of these, there are unexpected realizations, unanticipated consequences, and unsettling emotions. And in every one of them, her disappointment in the alternate life causes her to return to the Midnight Library. She comes to understand from Mrs. Elm that she “can choose choices but not outcomes.” The librarian also says wisely, in what I consider to be further themes of the book, “The only way to learn is to live,” and “Never underestimate the big importance of small things.”
Midpoint (pages 118 – 152): False victory. In her exploration of a parallel life as a glaciologist, she’s tasked with being a spotter during an Arctic excursion. She’s terrified when she sees a real polar bear coming close to her, ready to attack, and she realizes immediately and emphatically that she doesn’t want to die. During this same life, she meets a fellow scientist named Hugo, a man who privately shares with her some stunning news: He’s also bouncing between potential lives, just like Nora. (Although his mental construct of the “in between” is a video store rather than a library.) Finally there’s someone who understands what she’s been experiencing! They talk about this bizarre opportunity that’s been given to them—to exist for a while between life and death and test out alternate paths—and then Nora kisses him.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 153 – 180): It turns out that Hugo had already experienced nearly 300 alternate lives, and in some of them, he and Nora were even married. But during this particular parallel life, a longer relationship wasn’t going to happen. Nora, reminded of something Camus said, quotes his words to herself: “I may have not been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didn’t.”
She returns to the Midnight Library and quizzes the Mrs. Elm lookalike about whether or not the librarian is actually God, and if this is all just some weird mechanism in Nora’s mind—a way to simplify the complicated quantum wave function that must be at play. The librarian doesn’t give her any definitive answers, but she advises Nora to choose her next life selection carefully because the Midnight Library won’t stay standing forever. If time starts to move again outside of the library, the building will be destroyed, and Nora won’t have any other alternate-life choices left.
Since she no longer wishes to die, she tries to pick a life where she believes she might have the best shot at being happy—as the lead singer/songwriter in the band she was once in with her brother Joe and his buddy Ravi—only now that band is wildly famous. With huge fame, of course, comes huge problems. Like how she had to issue a restraining order against Dan in this life because he broke into her house. How her old manager had been ripping her off. How she’s the ex-girlfriend of her formerly favorite A-list movie star—who comes across to her now as a total bonehead.
“You can have everything and feel nothing,” her rock-idol self had recently tweeted. Nora is starting to fully understand that. She realizes there’s no way of life that can immunize a person against sadness. That it’s intrinsically tied to happiness, and one state wouldn’t exist without the other.
All Is Lost (pages 181 – 185): Whiff of death. This band, which had once been her brother’s big dream, was a far worse alternative life than Nora could have imagined. She discovers that two years ago, Joe had overdosed on drugs and was now dead.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 185 – 196): Up until now, every life Nora chose had been someone else’s dream. This time, though, she’s determined to choose an alternate life that’s quieter. One that is about her own hopes and dreams instead of any other person’s desires. She decides she wants “a gentle life.”
Break into Three (page 197): Upon this request, Mrs. Elm gives Nora a new green book to open, which she does. Nora slips more easily into this new and gentle life of working with animals at a shelter.
Finale (pages 197 – 286): This parallel life gives Nora the feeling that here, in the relative simplicity of this world, she’s at peace with herself. She walks dogs, cares for the animals, and is much more at ease within her mind and spirit. She finds herself involved with a nice man named Dylan and has to figure out their relationship. It turns out that he’s her boyfriend and he is truly as endearing and sweet as he seems, much like a beloved puppy.
And yet, she’s still not content. She tries another world where she’s married to a Mexican-American man and owns a California vineyard with him. He’s a good man and their life is a pleasant one, but she’s still dissatisfied. It’s far too easy to fake everything when, it appears, no one is really paying attention. At the Midnight Library, Mrs. Elm helps her find many, many more lives to sample.
Something new happens here for Nora. The more alternate lives she experiences, the more her imagination broadens. She’s soon able to picture increasingly better lives for herself. Referring back to the book’s multiple themes—from the beginning, Nora has needed to learn to imagine the life she wants, so she can live it with less fear. And since the only way to learn is to live… she must continue to live, while coming to appreciate the importance of small things.
Undoing regrets turns out to be a key for her and a way to enhance her vision of what she’s capable of feeling and believing. In some lives, she attracts a lot of attention. In others, almost none. She tests out being rich, poor, popular, nearly friendless, ambitious, obscure, in a relationship, not in one, and more. But the perspective she gains from all of these continues to shape her worldview.
On the plus side, Nora reaches a kind of acceptance about life—there might be bad experiences, yes, but there won’t be only bad experiences. She knows now that she hadn’t tried to end her original life merely because she was miserable, but because she’d convinced herself that there was no way out of it and no other options. Conversely, she no longer feels at home anywhere. She’s begun to lose the sense of who she was in her root life.
With Mrs. Elm’s encouragement, she enters yet another possible life, this one with Ash, the surgeon who’d found her dead cat and showed her tremendous kindness (just the night before, in her real/root life). Here, they’re married, definitely happy together, and share a beautiful 4-year-old daughter named Molly. But Nora can’t shake the feeling that she turned up too late for this life. That she hadn’t earned it. Even when she begins to “remember” things with Ash and Molly that she hadn’t actually lived, Nora feels a burgeoning love for them both, but it comes with a sense of profound loss in not having been there from the beginning.
There’s also a newfound sympathy for her original self, especially when she discovers that a few of her actions from her root life had made a significance difference to others—the big importance of small things. Much as she wishes she could stay in this world, Nora finds herself returning to the library.
But there’s a problem with the Midnight Library. The building itself is self-destructing. Here, the A and B Stories cross because what’s happening in Nora’s original life is impacting her ability to continue her search for an alternate one. Her very existence is at risk. If she dies in her root life, there can be no other choices—no other parallel lives for her to experience—not even one she loves.
The librarian urges her to get out before everything burns up or collapses, handing her a fountain pen that she’ll need to write on the blank book, which will be the life Nora really wants—the continuation of her original, real life. She barely manages to write, “I AM ALIVE,” before the library and the Mrs. Elm of her imagination disappear.
Nora, awakening just moments after her overdose, manages to get help in time to save herself and stay alive. She’s then given the opportunity to reconnect with important people in her life (i.e., her brother, her piano student’s mom, her neighbor, etc.) because she’s chosen to still exist. She has a new and much healthier perspective on living. Or as Thoreau famously wrote, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
Final Image (pages 287 – 288): In a perfect narrative bookend, Nora is again playing chess with Mrs. Elm, but this is the real librarian, the one Nora knew from her youth, who is now a much older woman and a resident at a local care facility. As she sits down to this game with her childhood librarian and friend, Nora Seed accepts her life as it is today and contemplates her next move.
THINGS YOU SAVE IN A FIRE:
Written by: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, 2019
Total pages: 310 (ebook edition)
STC Genre: Rites of Passage
Literary Genre: Romantic Women’s Fiction
Author Katherine Center is known for a number of bestselling novels, including How to Walk Away, Happiness for Beginners, What You Wish For, and The Lost Husband. If that final title sounds familiar, it’s because it was made into a Netflix movie last year starring Josh Duhamel and Leslie Bibb. However, it was another one of Center’s releases, Things You Save in a Fire, that caught my attention this summer. I devoured the ebook in a day and have been pondering certain scenes and themes from it ever since. The book was called “a gem” by New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult, who also wrote that it’s “a story that reminds us that the word emergency has, at its heart, a new beginning.” This idea had me intrigued.
I’m a big fan of both romance and romantic women’s fiction. It’s often tempting for readers to lump them together, but there’s a difference between those literary genres, and this particular novel falls squarely into the latter category. It has compelling and strongly romantic elements for sure (with a smokin’ hot firefighter, no less!), but the Buddy Love aspect, while important, is secondary. What makes this book a women’s fiction tale is the focus on the main character’s emotional journey, which is one of deep self discovery. It requires her to finally deal with the traumas of her past before she can choose the direction of her future.
Given the themes involving family life, childhood loss/grief, and facing issues from adolescence, this is a quintessential Rites of Passage story. As per the Save the Cat!® elements for this genre, there’s a major life problem—two big ones, in fact, a wrong way to attack these problems, and eventually, a solution that only arrives when our protagonist accepts the hard truths she’s been avoiding for years.
From the back cover:
Cassie Hanwell was born for emergencies. As one of the only female firefighters in her Texas firehouse, she’s seen her fair share of them, and she’s a total pro at other people’s tragedies. But when her estranged and ailing mother asks her to give up her whole life and move to Boston, Cassie suddenly has an emergency of her own.
The tough, old-school Boston firehouse is as different from Cassie’s old job as it could possibly be. Hazing, a lack of funding, and poor facilities mean that the firemen aren’t exactly thrilled to have a “lady” on the crew—even one as competent and smart as Cassie. Except for the infatuation-inspiring rookie, who doesn’t seem to mind having Cassie around. But she can’t think about that. Because love is girly, and it’s not her thing. And don’t forget the advice her old captain gave her: Never date firefighters. Cassie can feel her resolve slipping… and it means risking it all—the only job she’s ever loved, and the hero she’s worked like hell to become.
Katherine Center’s Things You Save in a Fire is a heartfelt and healing tour-de-force about the strength of vulnerability, the nourishing magic of forgiveness, and the life-changing power of defining courage, at last, for yourself.
This Indie Next Pick (August 2019) was one of the Most Anticipated Books of 2019 (She Reads), among the 25 Best New Books of Summer 2019 (Good Housekeeping), and a Must Read Women’s Fiction of 2019 selection (USA Today). Things You Save in a Fire also received starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus, the latter calling it “insightful, entertaining, and thoroughly addictive.”
Here’s my take on Blake Snyder’s beats for this novel of forgiveness, self-love, and redemption:
Opening Image (pages 1 – 3): Cassie is at a big professional banquet, about to be the youngest person and the only female to receive the valor award from the Austin Fire Department, when her partner of three years, Hernandez (described by Cassie as a “Latino firefighting Ken doll”), begins to hit on her for the first time ever. This is not the kind of attention from him she either wants or expects.
Theme Stated (page 4): The flirtation turns out to be a prank—an attempt to distract her from her obvious nervousness at the banquet—but Hernandez inadvertently touches a painful nerve. After Cassie insists that despite her utter lack of a love life or even an occasional date, she’s not lonely, her teasing partner turns serious when he states, “You’re the loneliest person I know.” She thinks about this comment frequently throughout the story because it’s sadly true. She’s been so numb to personal connection for so many years that she hadn’t even realized her loneliness. This leads to Cassie’s eventual revelation that “the antidote to loneliness is the courage to love and be loved.” And this refers not only to romantic relationships, but to every relationship in her life.
Set-Up (pages 1 – 19): Cassie is close to her colleagues (or as close as she’s willing to get to anyone), and she considers her firefighting team from Station Eleven to be her “family.” Cassie’s mother abandoned her and left her father for another man on Cassie’s sixteenth birthday, which is something Cassie has never been able to forgive or forget, despite her mother’s attempts at making amends. Although her dad managed to move on after the divorce and even remarried later, Cassie never resolved those feelings of loss. She just shut people out. To compound the grief she’s always associated with her sixteenth birthday is yet another bad memory from that same day, this one involving an extremely negative encounter with a high school classmate she’d had a crush on as a teen: Heath Thompson.
As readers, we don’t yet know the details of their relationship or what exactly happened that night, but we don’t need them to understand that he violated her in a profound way. Cassie’s horror at seeing him at her awards banquet is palpable. Even worse, Heath is now a city councilman and—surprise!—he’s the one who’ll be personally giving her that big valor award. One of Cassie’s natural gifts is her sense of clear-headedness and calm in the face of an emergency. However, when Heath smugly reaches over and cups her backside (out of view of the audience, of course), Cassie loses her cool completely and knocks the jerk unconscious with her brand new and very heavy wood-and-metal plaque. The audience catches that.
Catalyst (pages 20 – 26): A double whammy hits hard. There are not only serious professional repercussions for pummeling Heath on the head, however deservedly, but Cassie’s mother Diana calls out of the blue with a request that Cassie considers all but insane. Diana claims that, due to vision problems she’s been having, she needs her daughter’s help. She pleads with Cassie to move from Texas to Massachusetts to live with her “for a year at the most.” Cassie declines. Firmly.
Debate (pages 26 – 44): Only… the situation at hand gives her very few options. Cassie’s boss—a tough female captain—has to break the news that, unless Cassie publicly apologizes to Heath, she’ll be fired. She absolutely refuses. The captain is sympathetic, but there are some rules that can’t be bent. Cassie, in a last-ditch effort to find a solution, asks whether it might be possible to get a firefighting position near Boston instead, which is about the only reason she’d agree to go anywhere near her estranged mom. Turns out, that idea might just work. The captain helps her find a job, and she gives Cassie a slew of advice that, while it’s intended to help her navigate her role as the only female at this new firehouse, also serves to reinforce her sense of isolation and loneliness. “Just be a machine,” says the captain. “A machine that eats fire.”
Break into Two (pages 46 – 66): Cassie drives from her Austin, TX home north to her mother’s suburb of Rockport, MA and literally enters a new, upside-down world. It’s a huge change for her: Life with a mom she barely knows, plus a new set of firefighters who are essentially hostile to having a woman in their house. Her motivation for this change is being driven by what she thinks will solve the problem, not what she genuinely needs. Her only plan is to keep her distance emotionally from everyone.
B Story (pages 69 – 71): Then the rookie enters the scene—or the firehouse, as it were—and completely throws off all of her grand plans of detachment. She feels an immediate, unwelcome, and totally unmistakable pull of attraction toward him. For years and years she’s been immune to this sensation. That’s no longer the case.
Fun and Games (pages 66 – 161): There’s the new firehouse and its challenges, such as the ritualistic hazing by her teammates and the obstacles thrown at her by being part of a new system. There’s her mom’s desire for a closer relationship, and her mom’s friends, who want to include Cassie in their activities. And then there’s the rookie—real name: Owen—and their burgeoning friendship, which morphs into a mutual fondness… with the possibility for more.
Midpoint (pages 159 – 161): False victory. Owen/the rookie asks for her assistance in attending his family’s big party. He needs to bring a “girlfriend” to deflect attention from the fact that he’d broken up with his ex several months back but didn’t tell his parents. Cassie agrees to help him on the condition that their boss and fellow firefighters never find out about this. She says even if they aren’t dating, rumors would fly and it would be detrimental to her career. He agrees but, of course, the boss unexpectedly shows up and they have to hide in a closet to avoid him. Sexual tension runs high. But here comes a big revelation: Not only hasn’t Cassie dated anyone, she’s never even been kissed. The rookie changes that. It’s a memorable and exhilarating “first kiss” moment.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 162 – 210): Cassie’s attraction to the rookie, although a very positive experience, reignites extremely negative memories of Heath Thompson and his sexual attack of her when they were teens. There are lots of new worries and dangerous problems, too, coming at her from every possible direction.
At the firehouse, someone purposely vandalizes Cassie’s locker with the word “Slut,” slashes her car tires, throws a brick in her mom’s front window, and makes it clear that she’s not wanted there. The captain is angry with her for doing something she thought was good—getting grant money to buy things like cyanide poisoning antidote kits, which fire engines should carry in case of emergencies—and basically not doing things “the way they’ve always been done.”
There are budget cuts coming from the city, meaning that either she or the rookie will have to go. Although Cassie is much more capable as a firefighter, Owen is a male, from a family of firefighters (including his dad), and very well liked by everybody. She has to prove herself at every turn on the job, but she doubts that will be enough.
And then there’s her mother. When Diana has a seizure, Cassie learns that her mom’s “eye problem” is actually caused by a tumor, and it’s terminal. The doctors have given Diana less than a year to live.
All Is Lost (pages 211 – 214): Whiff of death. More than a “whiff,” in fact. At her mother’s hospital bed, Cassie silently begs/prays that her mother won’t leave her (again).
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 214 – 217): Once she fully understands what little time she and Diana have left together, Cassie has an epiphany about her relationship with her mother. She finally hears what Diana has been saying all along—about her life choices, about the man she’d loved, about the reasons she’d left when she did, etc.—and Cassie starts to see her mother’s story in a new light. She not only forgives her mom, she wants to be forgiven by her.
Break into Three (pages 218 – 234): Cassie takes Diana home from the hospital and, for the first time since she was a teen, they begin to work on having a true mother-daughter relationship. Diana is determined to try to beat the cancer. Meanwhile, Cassie attempts to open herself up to emotion again. To figure out how to face the rest of her life. To savor whatever time she has left with her mom. And to deal with her feelings for Owen. She’s still traumatized by the rape when she was sixteen, but she also realizes that Owen isn’t anything like Heath.
The rookie has his own ghosts from the past. He admits he doesn’t want to be a firefighter—he prefers to cook and bake—and that Cassie won’t have to leave the firehouse because he’s planning to quit. Furthermore, Owen confesses that he loves her. (Cue more kissing!)
Finale (pages 235 – 301): Cassie and the rookie are now a couple. She realizes the great extent to which love can heal and finally feels she deserves to be happy—or, at least, to have “the power to refuse to let the world’s monsters ruin everything.” She’s slowly but surely conquering her flaws and her fears.
All problems in her life are not solved, however. In dealing with a bad local fire and some reckless decisions made on the part of one of her older colleagues, Cassie is left to face the consequences of the older man’s lies and his dangerous actions. In the midst of this, Owen is hurt. She is fortunately able to save Owen’s life (thanks to one of the cyanide poisoning antidote kits she’d gotten for the station), but he still ends up in the hospital. Their boss, the other firefighters, and even Owen’s family blame Cassie solely for his being there. It takes a heroic effort on Cassie’s part to untangle the reason behind these problems, but she does. When the truth comes to light, she succeeds in winning the respect of her team, as well as admiration from the rookie’s family.
Final Image (pages 303 – 310): In a sum-it-all-up style of an Epilogue, Cassie and Owen get married. Her friends from Texas come to the wedding. She fully forgives Diana, who lives longer than expected (although not as long as Cassie would have liked), and she even forgives the older colleague who tried to sabotage her at the firehouse and whose actions landed Owen in the hospital. Her husband, who’s still affectionately known as “the rookie,” has opened up a little restaurant, while Cassie continues to work as a firefighter. They now have two children. Cassie’s best revenge is having such a fantastic life that she has (mostly) forgotten Heath Thompson, who did finally go to jail, although it was for tax fraud rather than sexual assault. Above all, Cassie is no longer lonely. She’s found the courage to love and be loved.
Written by: Alice Hoffman
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, copyright 1995, hardcover (pictured above)
Total pages: 244
STC Genre: Out of the Bottle
Living in the Midwest, it’s impossible to ignore this new, sharp chill in the autumn air or fail to witness the yearly transformation of the leaves—changing a lush green to a burnt orange or a fiery red. There’s a kind of alchemy in nature, giving the impression of the miraculous. Sorcery is afoot all season long. Perhaps that’s why it seems so easy to believe in magic in October.
For me, a story that captures this sensation perfectly is Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic. My personal copy is a treasured one. It’s not only a beautiful physical book—a hardcover signed by the author—but it was a gift from a fellow writer, a friend who’d somehow guessed that Hoffman’s insightful and atmospheric novel would resonate with me. This story in particular remains one of my favorite examples of magical realism… a perfect morsel of masterful prose befitting the month of Halloween.
Cosmopolitan described it as: “[A] delicious fantasy of witchcraft and love in a world where gardens smell of lemon verbena and happy endings are possible.”
Ah, happy endings! Not always a given in books featuring the supernatural.
About the novel:
For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town.
Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well. As children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats.
But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape. One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic.
This month also brings some exciting news for Hoffman fans. She just released the fourth and final installment in this series (The Book of Magic) on October 12th. I’m looking forward to delving into that tale, too, but it was a pleasure to revisit the novel where I was first introduced to these enchanting characters and to get to reread Practical Magic with Blake Snyder’s beat sheet in mind.
Come join me as we pass through the wispy veil and step into the world of the mysterious and magical Owens family!
Opening Image (pages 1 – 4): We get a first glimpse into the Owens house on Magnolia Street and its four residents—Aunt Frances (“Franny”), Aunt Bridget (“Jet”), Sally, and Gillian—who are regarded as oddities at best, and unlucky by most.
Set-Up (pages 1 – 25): Two sisters—as different from one another as Night and Day—are orphaned at a young age and sent to live with their two eccentric aunts in a small Massachusetts town where they’re immediately treated as outcasts. There are no regular meals, bedtimes, or rules for them, which even the children themselves find strange, but their aunts, who are known locally as the creators of love potions and other herbal remedies, are far from typical.
Sally, the eldest of the girls by 13 months, has black hair and a tremendous sense of responsibility. She’s studious, willing to cook and clean, and is constantly taking on more than a child should. Her deepest desire it to be like everyone else, which is the least likely thing that could happen in a family like hers. Her younger sister Gillian is a beautiful blond boy magnet, who’s lazy, self-centered, and prone to getting herself into trouble.
Had anyone else in school or in their neighborhood been willing to befriend them, these two sisters probably would have drifted apart. As it is, they are the only ones who can be there for each other. Of the two girls, it’s conscientious Sally that the aunts worry about most.
Theme Stated (page 12 and page 21): Despite the vows Sally and Gillian made in their youth never to be ruled by their passions, both the pursuit and the avoidance of love seem to underscore their lives and cause them endless issues over the years. The powerful nature of desire and real love, regardless of rational promises or logic, runs throughout the story.
From page 12: “Desire had a way of making a person oddly courageous.” And from page 21: “Real love was dangerous, it got you from inside and held on tight, and if you didn’t let go fast enough you might be willing to do anything for its sake.” Both sisters eventually find themselves needing to confront this compelling force.
Catalyst (pages 25 – 35): The sisters are separated for what will turn out to be many years when Gillian elopes with her first of three husbands and moves away, vowing never to come back to Massachusetts. Sally also falls for a man, but she stays married to him. He moves into the house on Magnolia Street and they have two daughters—Antonia and Kylie. Then her husband suddenly dies, and all the normalcy Sally thought she’d earned falls apart.
Debate (pages 35 – 41): Sally doesn’t speak for an entire year. She and her daughters are still living in the same house with Aunt Franny and Aunt Jet, and the aunts are taking care of her daughters while she distances herself from the world. Gillian calls her on the phone every week to try to get her to engage in life again, but she won’t do it. Sally has stopped believing in everything… until, finally, she begins to see colors again, and the behavior of the people in their town. She realizes she needs to live in a place where the residents won’t point at her children and make them feel the way she and her sister did growing up. Sally packs their bags and decides to move.
Break into Two (pages 41- 47): Sally buys a home for herself and her daughters in the state of New York. It’ll be a fresh start for them all. A house with a white picket fence, no walls that are painted black, and an absence of cats and strange potions. She gets a respectable job as an assistant to the vice principal at the high school and, while she loves her aunts, she only intends to visit them for one week each August. Welcome to Sally’s nice, normal, new world!
B Story (pages 48 – 57): Time jumps ahead by over a decade, and Sally’s two daughters are now both teenagers. Antonia is 16, selfish, mouthy, and stunningly beautiful. Kylie is on the verge of turning 13, smart, athletic, and chronically insecure about her appearance, especially when her big sister teases her, which is often. Kylie and Antonia’s sisterly relationship is at the heart of the B Story—a comparison to Sally and Gillian’s and, occasionally, a foil to it.
This is also where the various romantic relationship threads for each of these four female characters gradually begin to unfold. Proof that love and friendship can take many forms. For Kylie, there’s her pal Gideon. For Antonia, there’s a college student named Scott. For Gillian, biology teacher Ben will unwittingly win her heart. And for Sally, investigator Gary will be her surprising love interest by the novel’s end.
Fun and Games (pages 48 – 97): A double-ringed halo appears around the moon (an omen) and, with it, the reappearance of Gillian in Sally’s life… at her nice, normal house, where she’s become a respected member of the community. Gillian comes blowing into town with a problem, of course, in the form of her mean and abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend Jimmy, who’s in the car with her. More specifically, he’s dead, and Gillian believes she accidentally killed him.
Prior to this, Sally’s life in New York had been pretty staid and uneventful. She rarely dated and didn’t think of love as a reality or even a possibility for herself. She’d been warning her sister about the dangers of a man like Jimmy for some time, even sending her a strongly worded letter, which Gillian didn’t receive because she and her boyfriend had to hightail it out of Arizona due to his illegal actions.
Sally now has to help her sister bury Jimmy’s body. They select a spot in the backyard, near the lilac bushes, which begin blooming like crazy afterward. Gillian then moves into Sally’s house, creating all sorts of tension, not the least of which involves her relationship with her nieces, Antonia and Kylie. Antonia becomes jealous and angry. And Kylie begins dressing and behaving differently, thanks to the influence of her “cool” Aunt Gillian, and coming into her own powers. The auras she could always see around people start to intensify after her 13th birthday. Unbeknownst to her mom and her aunt, Kylie can also see the ghost of Jimmy.
Midpoint (pages 97 – 117): False defeat. Upon discovering that Kylie has “seen” Jimmy outside in the yard, Sally and Gillian realize that haven’t gotten rid of him like they’d thought. Moreover, this vile and nasty spirit actually enjoys it when they’re fighting. He’ll do everything he can within his ghostly influence to keep the conflict going.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 117 – 193): Jimmy is haunting them. His silver ring rises from the dirt and a toad brings it inside, along with a massive dose of bad luck for the Owens family. The insanely huge lilacs—their growth a sign of Jimmy’s possession—are drawing people to the house, especially those who are grieving. Kylie is feeling the emotions of strangers and it’s making her sad. In addition to all the changes adolescence brings, she fears that others will see who she really is before she can see it herself. She attempts to reconcile with Gideon after a rift in their friendship, but things go awry. Her grown-up appearance attracts two drunk men who chase her and leave her terrified.
Antonia feels forgotten and breaks down in front of Scott. Gillian believes she’s unworthy of Ben’s affection and can’t understand why the popular teacher would want to be with her. She desires him, but doesn’t trust her emotions. And Sally’s world is in total upheaval. Beyond what’s happening to her in her own home, the letter she’d mailed to Gillian in Arizona is intercepted by an investigator looking into Jimmy’s disappearance. That man is Gary, and he now has an address to visit in his search for his suspect. He gets on the next flight to New York.
All Is Lost (pages 193 – 198): Whiff of death—which, among other deaths, includes the murder of three college students, all of whom took Jimmy’s tainted drugs. Gary arrives at Sally’s house determined to locate Jimmy, but he’s also attracted to Sally. After having read her letter (multiple times), he was a little in love with her before they’d even met. Sally, too, finds herself attracted to Gary and, to Gillian’s dismay, unable to lie to him. Gillian instructs her to stay silent, but Gary spots Jimmy’s distinctive silver ring and realizes the Owens sisters know more than they’re saying. Sally believes they’ll be implicated in Jimmy’s death and makes the decision, against her sister’s wishes, to go talk with him and to confess.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 198 – 217): It’s a sorrowful night for Gillian and Ben, Kylie and Gideon, and Antonia and Scott—there will be separations ahead—and for Sally as well, who seeks out Gary and fears the repercussions of telling him the truth. Gary has conflicted feelings about the situation, but he’s still very drawn to Sally. Normally, Gillian would have bolted by now, but it’s a sign of her growth that she stays in the house with her nieces, despite her many apprehensions and insecurities.
Break into Three (pages 217 – 218): Sally returns home and tells Gillian about her confusing meeting with Gary. The sisters also discover that Jimmy simply refuses to stay buried. One of his snakeskin boots surfaces in the backyard. This is the last straw. Gillian says, “Call the aunts. Do it now.” Both sisters recognize that Aunt Franny and Aunt Jet are the only ones who might know how to deal with anything like this.
Finale (pages 218 – 243): The two aunts come armed with tools to help fix not only the problem in the backyard (they know how to get rid of Jimmy’s body for good), but also to try to mend the emotional wounds of their nieces and grandnieces. For Sally and Gillian in particular, their self worth has been bound up in the past for so long. They need to accept their history, rather than try to run from it, but they also need to embrace their gifts and the beloved people in their lives so they can move forward.
Although Jimmy died when he was with Gillian, the aunts prove she didn’t kill him. As for Ben, they really like him. He’s a kind, devoted, and considerate man who truly loves Gillian and who will eventually marry her. Antonia and Kylie have grown closer recently, which shows their own maturity. As for Sally, she appreciates her aunts and all she’s learned from them. She finds out that Jimmy’s silver ring, which Gary took with him back to Arizona, turned up on a dead body down there (clearly, Gary’s doing), so she and Gillian are free from further investigation. Sally, her daughters, Gillian and Ben, and various family friends all plan to gather at the aunts’ house on Magnolia Street for a large and festive Thanksgiving.
Final Image (pages 243 – 244): In a classic “Out of the Bottle” moment, the hero/heroine wins without the use of magic. During the Thanksgiving celebration, Gary returns to Sally—freely and without the help of any love potion—and she runs to greet him. She’s revised her beliefs. The biggest among them is this: “Fall in love whenever you can.”
FIVE TUESDAYS IN WINTER (short story):
Written by: Lily King
Publisher: Grove Press, hardcover, copyright 2021
Total pages: 25 pages for the short story “Five Tuesdays in Winter”
Genre: Buddy Love
A well-crafted short story is an art form—a thing of beauty and resonance. Last year, I read and enjoyed Lily King’s popular novel, Writers & Lovers (March 2020), which was a New York Times bestseller and a Goodreads Award nominee for Best Fiction. But it was her newly released short story collection, Five Tuesdays in Winter (November 2021), that cemented my love of her writing and staked a claim on my imagination. There are 10 short stories in the book that are unrelated to each other, at least as far as their specific plots and characters, but they’re united in their exploration of love, desire, heartache, and loss, and they kept me up late reading and pondering their themes.
My favorite is the story that shares its title with the collection, “Five Tuesdays in Winter” (pages 43 – 67), the second of the 10 stories. It’s about an emotionally guarded bookseller, his daughter, and a woman who becomes important to them both.
As always, I’m in awe of how applicable Blake Snyder’s beat sheet can be across multiple storytelling domains—novels, films, TV shows, songs, and short fiction, too. To all of us, it’s a gift of structure and insight that we can utilize in our writing and help to strengthen it. I never get tired of seeing these 15 elements in action, and I was delighted to recognize the presence of every beat in Lily King’s beautifully written piece.
I hope you’ll read this short story and the others included in Five Tuesdays in Winter, a collection that received starred reviews from both the Library Journal and Kirkus, and about which Ann Patchett said, “[It] moved me, inspired me, thrilled me. It filled up every chamber of my heart. I loved this book.”
Yes. Me, too.
Opening Image (pages 43 – 44): We’re introduced to 42-year-old divorced bookstore owner Mitchell, his 12-year-old daughter Paula, and his only hired employee, 30-something Kate, who’d moved to Portland, Maine, from San Francisco, to live with her boyfriend. It’s a Saturday in January and all three of them are working at the bookstore together.
Theme Stated (page 44): Young Paula is irritated with her father, whom she disdainfully tags as “reticent,” and is complaining about him within his earshot as she chats with Kate. The definition of the word— not revealing one’s thoughts or feelings readily; being withdrawn, inhibited, or restrained—fits Mitchell well. As readers, we recognize this immediately. What is less apparent until later is that Kate, too, shares this quality. So, when Paula asks Kate, “Isn’t he the most reticent person you’ve ever met?” and Kate replies, “Maybe not the very most,” there’s more behind this short dialogue exchange than it initially appears.
Set-Up (pages 43 – 45): We learn that Mitchell’s parents both died, as did his best friend when he was younger, and these losses impacted him deeply. His wife left him, too, because she considered him “emotionally stagnant” with a heart that was “locked shut.” But the wife not only left Mitchell, she also left Paula. While his wife’s absence has made Mitchell shutter his emotions even further, his daughter is far less constricted. Paula is desperate to connect and communicate with him. For him to open up to her and to the world at large. However, he doesn’t have any idea how to do this. He’s attracted to Kate and, in spite of her imperfect spelling and less structured way of being, he admires her from across the bookstore and wishes he could kiss her.
Catalyst (pages 46 – 47): Paula spontaneously suggests that Kate would be the perfect person to tutor her in Spanish, and she railroads her father into considering the idea. Paula says she’s already talked about it with Kate and that Kate can come to their house on Tuesdays.
Debate (page 47): Thrown by this potential change in their routine and not knowing how to reply, Mitchell stumbles in his response, questioning Kate’s fluency. Kate explains that she’s never taught Spanish, but she did live for two years in Peru. She’s conversational with the language, which is an advantage Paula quickly jumps on. Paula insists that she doesn’t get nearly enough time speaking Spanish in the classroom, a complaint Mitchell never heard her voice until now. He debates the necessity of this tutoring plan, but he loves his daughter and agrees to go along with it if she thinks it’ll be of help.
Break into Two (pages 47 – 48): It’s the first Tuesday with a tutoring session, and Kate comes to their house. Mitchell can’t help but notice how nicely she’s dressed. He’s disappointed when his daughter spirits Kate away to her bedroom.
B Story (pages 48 – 49): The lessons begin. There are multiple relationships developing simultaneously: The friendship between Kate and Paula, which is a necessary component for Mitchell in order to see his daughter more clearly and, eventually, relate to her a bit better. And, also, having this additional contact with Kate allows him to embark on a tentative but growing friendship/relationship with her.
Fun and Games (pages 51 – 58): Between the weekly Spanish lessons at the house and working daily with Kate at the bookstore, Mitchell begins to admit—if only to himself—how much he looks forward to seeing Kate and how he truly enjoys her company. She’s recently moved to a new apartment and is no longer living with the man she came to Maine to be with, but she goes on a lunch date with a new, potential boyfriend, which concerns Mitchell. He’s drawn to her offbeat sense of humor, and she appears to be amused by his. But most importantly, Kate is thoughtful and doesn’t seem inclined to try to change him. When Kate brings him back some soup (in response to an inside joke they’d shared), Mitchell finds himself entertaining the notion that, in addition to being attracted to her, he likes her.
Midpoint (pages 58 – 59): False victory. One day, when Mitchell is out of sorts because of an annoying customer, he and Kate talk afterward. He not only has a deep emotional revelation but, for once, he actually expresses it aloud to Kate. He’d been thinking about his favorite customer—an older lady named Mrs. White—who’d passed away some time back. Mrs. White was smart and had a great sense of humor, and Mitchell misses her. He tells Kate these things, but he further realizes that the qualities he’d liked so much about the older woman he also sees in Kate. In what is a big moment for a man who’s so reticent about sharing his feelings, he tells Kate that she reminds him of Mrs. White. Coming from him, there couldn’t be a much higher compliment.
Bad Guys Close In (page 59): Given Kate’s ability to meet new people, including customers at the bookstore—one of whom asked her out on a date—Mitchell worries that she’ll soon find a new boyfriend. A male customer comes in and, despite the fact that Kate’s and Mitchell’s eye colors are different shades, this guy studies them standing side by side and says they have “the same kind of eyes.” This is a strangely unsettling observation to Mitchell.
All Is Lost (pages 59 – 60): Whiff of death for their prior employer/employee relationship, which has shifted between them, and their friendship is at an awkward stage. Mitchell doesn’t know how to act around Kate. He can’t speak with her easily, and without his daughter nearby, he has a hard time finding out information about his love interest that he’d like to know. Paula has a way of extracting new and interesting facts from Kate, and he craves more of that. Unfortunately, his daughter has some school-related commitments and won’t be coming to the bookstore that Saturday.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 60 – 61): Mitchell discovers that the fifth of the Tuesday tutoring sessions will fall on Valentine’s Day, and what’s worse, that this day is also Kate’s birthday. He has no idea what to do. To complicate matters further, Paula tells him that she’s invited Kate to stay for dinner after the Valentine’s Day/birthday Spanish lesson, and that they’re going to need to buy her a birthday gift.
Break into Three (pages 61 – 62): Mitchell steps up to his duties as a father and takes Paula to the mall so they can choose a gift for Kate together. While they’re there, Mitchell and Paula spot Kate shopping! Both father and daughter have the instinct to hide from Kate. To watch her from afar to see if what she does or where she goes will give them a better indication of what she might like for her birthday present. Both of them likewise notice—although only Paula verbalizes it—that Kate seems sad. Mitchell realizes how much he genuinely cares for her and how he hopes those feelings are even partially reciprocated.
Finale (pages 62 – 67): Something inside of Mitchell’s heart and soul has changed. He makes lasagna for Kate’s birthday dinner and, as he prepares it, recognizes that he finally feels like a different man. There may, in fact, be no good reason why he suddenly believes he might be able to make someone happy now. There have been no significant differences in his life and his attitudes for over 20 years, and yet… he’s aware that he’s nervous about Kate’s visit. His feelings of insecurity and anxiety are because he so very much wants the evening to go well.
But Kate, who has been in Paula’s room for the Spanish lesson, abruptly rushes out of the house. She assures him that she’ll be right back and that Paula will be fine, but Mitchell doesn’t immediately understand what’s happening. Turns out, his daughter has just started her period and Kate has left to get the needed supplies. Mitchell opens up even more to Paula while they’re waiting for Kate’s return. His daughter has a way of getting to the heart of his emotions, and the two of them discuss the departure of her mother with refreshing honesty. Mitchell finds himself “babbling” to Paula, quite a feat for a man who’s supposedly so reticent. He confesses to Kate when she comes back that he’s worried he spoke too much to Paula about her menarche and that Kate may have to undo his overly wordy mistakes. Kate is amused by this.
As Mitchell and Kate wash Paula’s stained quilt together, they talk and, simultaneously, stare at each other. He asks her why she thought that male customer said they had the same eyes. Kate replies that maybe the man saw something similar in them. “Fear,” she suggests. Then adds, “Desire.” And Mitchell thinks, “Love.” The theme is fully realized here. This is a story about reticence, the fears that created it, and what it takes to overcome it—particularly hope, desire, and love.
Final Image (page 67): Paula has pulled the lasagna out of the oven and calls to them that dinner is ready. But Kate and Mitchell are gazing at each other. She touches his face and he pulls her close with the intent of kissing her. His daughter comes around the corner and spots them, and the pair springs apart. Paula, however, is grinning brightly. She has masterminded a grand romantic scheme and succeeded in executing it perfectly. As readers, we all recognize that clever Paula, from the beginning, has been playing matchmaker to two lonely people. She takes her father and her tutor by their arms and leads them both to dinner. Kate smiles at Mitchell, and he feels the moment to be so hopeful, beautiful, and magical that there’s no need to wish for anything more.
Author: Nita Prose
Publisher: Ballantine Books, January 2022
Total Pages: 504 (ebook edition)
Genre: Whydunit & Fool Triumphant
A near perfect blend of Fool Triumphant meets Whydunit, The Maid by Nita Prose features an unreliable narrator who doubles as the headlining heroine of a murder mystery. The result is a tantalizing read, which succeeded in rocketing this recently released novel to the #1 spot on the New York Times Best Seller List.
Here is the book description from Ballantine:
Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.
Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.
But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?
A Clue-like, locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, The Maid explores what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different—and reveals that all mysteries can be solved through connection to the human heart.
The publisher accurately summarizes the plot. However, trying to explain the tone of The Maid is more complex than merely describing the premise. I found the storytelling style to be charming and slyly humorous—reminding me in parts of certain scenes from Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine—and, yet, entirely its own tale. Chris Whitaker, New York Times bestselling author of We Begin at the End, said the novel was “Fresh, fiendish, and darkly beguiling,” which I thought encapsulated it well.
A key element of the story was also unexpectedly reminiscent of a passage from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. There’s a point in his travelogue when Steinbeck muses on how some reporters can descend on a place, talk to a handful of people, and come to orderly conclusions based on a small sampling of opinions. He envied this technique but, at the same time, he did “not trust it as a mirror of reality.” He felt there were “too many realities.” I suspect Steinbeck would have appreciated a distinctive protagonist and narrator like Molly Gray.
Molly shares her perceptions with us and clearly sees the behavior of others differently than her fellow characters do. Since the concept of individual interpretation is such an integral element of this novel, let me be the first to admit that my breakdown of beats for this book could potentially be viewed in a wholly different manner by another reader. Molly herself would likely emphasize alternate aspects of the story than the ones I’ve chosen, were she to be given a turn at analyzing it. (And, trust me, I would dearly love to read that version!)
Possible permutations aside, it was great fun getting to play detective myself by matching scenes from The Maid to Blake Snyder’s beats. Here’s my perspective on the structure of this engaging story.
Opening Image (pp. 1 – 8/Front Matter; pp. 9 – 10/Prologue): Molly introduces herself to the reader: “I am your maid.” She informs us that she knows much about all of us and our habits… but, really, what do we know about her?
Set-Up (pp. 9 – 33): Raised by her grandmother after her mother left and eventually died, 25-year-old Molly has never known her father and she most recently lost her beloved Gran to pancreatic cancer. Molly is a woman of strict routine, quirky sayings, and simple pleasures. She loves the “Tour of Italy” entree at the Olive Garden restaurant, not to mention the salad and bread that accompanies it. She’s an avid fan of the TV show Columbo. And she absolutely revels in her job as a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel. She admits she has trouble deciphering facial expressions and interpreting the correct behavior in social situations. She’s aware she makes unintentional errors, but she’s unquestionably a dedicated and diligent worker.
Putting on her maid’s uniform is like an “invisibility cloak,” and she appreciates the relative anonymity it affords her. But there are individuals she pays close attention to during her day, namely, Mr. Snow, her boss; Rodney, the bartender she has a crush on; Cheryl, the head maid with a penchant for thievery; Juan Manuel, the Mexican immigrant who works as a dishwasher in the kitchen; Mr. Preston, the widowed doorman; and Giselle Black, the second wife of the wealthy and powerful Charles Black, both of whom have been staying in the penthouse suite. These characters comprise Molly’s world.
Theme Stated (p. 21): Molly frequently relies on the remembered wisdom of her grandmother. She recalled Gran saying, “Never mind what others think; it’s what you think that matters.” This is important to Molly. She’s determined to follow her own moral code and not to be led blindly by others, no matter what the consequences. This is the traditional “theme stated.”
But there’s an additional and rather cunning theme that arises from Molly’s own thoughts on page 35, and it has resonance throughout the story, right down to the very last scene: “It’s easier than you’d ever think—existing in plain sight while remaining largely invisible. That’s what I’ve learned from being a maid. You can be so important, so crucial to the fabric of things and yet be entirely overlooked. It’s a truth that applied to maids, and to others as well, so it seems. It’s a truth that cuts close to the bone.” A truth indeed, folks. Don’t forget this one.
Catalyst (pp. 34 – 35): Mr. Charles Black is discovered dead in the suite, and Molly is the one to find him. Something very odd and unexplained (until the novel’s end) happens here, but the reader is made aware of these facts: That Molly comes upon the man in his bed, determines he no longer has a pulse and isn’t breathing, calls the hotel’s reception desk for help, sees something in the mirror that unsettles her, and promptly faints.
Debate (pp. 36 – 102): Molly shares her recollections surrounding this unfortunate occurrence with the reader via her mental review, with her boss Mr. Snow, and finally with the lady police detective in charge of the case. Molly painstakingly recounts the events leading up to her discovery of Mr. Black’s body, frequently over-focusing on details that surprise Detective Stark and seem trivial to her. As readers, we’re aware from Molly’s thought process that her personal moral code prevents her from revealing every single thing she knows about the people involved, especially regarding Giselle, Mr. Black’s current wife, who Molly considers one of her few friends.
Also, as a professional maid who “sees dirt where most do not,” Molly is horrified by the lack of hygiene at the police station. One of my favorite lines in this section comes when Molly sees the police detective chewing on the end of her pen and imagines “the universe of bacteria dwelling on the top.” She mentally refers to it as Detective Stark’s plume de peste. Offhanded observations such as these are priceless.
Break into Two (pp. 103 – 116): Molly’s love of the show Columbo comes into play here. There’s a mystery afoot at the Regency Grand, and Molly, as both the real Whydunit detective and the Fool Triumphant protagonist, has her work cut out for her. She’s battling an establishment that doesn’t respect, understand, or fully value her, as well as attempting to juggle relationships with people whose behaviors are frequently mystifying to her. She’d trusted Gran when the older woman was alive, but who can she trust now?
B Story (pp. 116 – 129): This novel has a traditional romantic component. There are financial repercussions as a result of her past relationship with ex-boyfriend Wilbur, legal problems because of her infatuation with Rodney, and future dating opportunities stemming from her interactions with Juan Manuel—a friendship that later catches fire. But it’s also a “love story” in the broader sense of friendship and belonging. Molly needs to find her tribe and distinguish friends from enemies, allies from aggressors.
Fun and Games (pp. 132 – 149): Molly proves herself to be quite capable of compartmentalizing aspects of her world. Her interpretations of the goings-on at the hotel lead to all manner of observations regarding her duties and her interactions with the people there. Molly has conversations with Giselle, who’s still living at the hotel but on another floor. She’s forced to talk to Cheryl, who embodies the role of jealous insider and who is still stealing tips belonging to other maids. She’s been trying to help Juan Manuel, who’s genuinely worried about her and who appreciates her, even though she doesn’t yet realize this. She remains interested in Rodney, who always seems to be scheming about something. And she chats with Mr. Preston, who greets her daily at the door and tries to warn her about people like Rodney, whose intentions may not be honorable.
Molly misinterprets Rodney’s keen interest in talking with her about Mr. Black’s death as a romantic gesture on Rodney’s part. (Readers immediately realize this is not at all the reason for his initiation of this conversation.) Then Giselle surprises Molly by showing up at her apartment unannounced and asking her for a favor. Giselle would like Molly to retrieve the gun she had stashed in the bathroom of the suite. Although risky, Molly agrees. While cleaning the suite where Giselle and her late husband initially stayed, Molly finds his gold wedding band, which he’d thrown across the room in anger the day he died. In a surprise move for someone so proper, Molly pawns the ring so she can make her rent payment.
Midpoint (pp. 249 – 252): Detective Stark is back in search of Molly, and she’s not in a good mood. New evidence in the case has surfaced, and Molly must now return to the police station for additional questioning.
Bad Guys Close In (pp. 253 – 344): Given the many forces working against Molly, much of the novel could fall under the umbrella of bad guys closing in on her. In her very small world, there have been (and still are) a lot of factors working against her. Detective Stark demands “the truth.” Molly assures the reader that she’s been literally honest. However, she privately admits that she’s omitted certain details… not just from the police but, as it turns out, from the reader as well.
Stark considers Molly a person of interest in the case. Adding to Molly’s stress is her landlord, who’s a bully. Worst of all, with problems mounting from every direction, she breaks down and confides her fears to Rodney, believing him to be a friend. He is, of course, a shady character—one who had been deeply involved in a drug trafficking scheme with the late Mr. Black—and he doesn’t have Molly’s best interests at heart. Giselle’s gun is suspiciously discovered in Molly’s vacuum cleaner (where Molly hid it, but no one aside from Rodney knew about that location). And Molly’s decision to pawn Mr. Black’s ring (another secret she’d disclosed only to Rodney) is also revealed to the police, which makes her appear even guiltier. Rodney, Cheryl, and other staff members defame her character to the detective.
All of which leads to the police showing up at Molly’s apartment and arresting her the next morning. Molly faints again, this time waking up in a dirty jail cell. Using her allotted phone call, she contacts the kind and genuinely supportive Mr. Preston because she needs help. His daughter Charlotte is a hot-shot lawyer who posts Molly’s bail and agrees to represent her, but getting Molly out of police custody is only the beginning.
All Is Lost (p. 345): Molly discovers that Juan Manuel isn’t the only person Rodney has been using in his illicit drug-running activities at the hotel. For the past year, Molly has been an unwitting mule in the nefarious cartel operation.
Dark Night of the Soul (pp. 346 – 364): Pieces of this jigsaw puzzle start coming together. Charlotte quickly comes to understand the real problem. She, along with her father, enlighten Molly about what has been happening behind the scenes at the hotel. They bring Juan Manuel into their confidence, too, since he’s been blackmailed into taking part in the illegal activities. Thus, the four of them—Molly, Mr. Preston, Charlotte, and Juan Manuel—become a team.
Break into Three (pp. 365 – 366): Charlotte spearheads a plan to help both Molly and Juan Manuel, but the young maid doesn’t think she has what it takes to pull off such a clever caper. Still, with encouragement from her friends—and lots of coaching—Molly is prepared to give it her best effort.
Finale (pp. 366 – 491): The road to the novel’s conclusion is a beautiful illustration of the Five-Point Finale:
Gathering the Team: The new group of four, who Molly refers to as her “team of crack investigators,” get together to “devise a trap” to catch Rodney in the act. They solidify their plan and prepare to work as a unit to execute it.
Executing the Plan: The first step in this plan is for Molly to text Rodney, saying they must meet urgently to talk about what she’d disclosed to the police. This sets in motion a setup that will require Rodney to go into the suite where the Blacks were originally staying and “clean it up.” A multi-step sting operation is underway.
The High Tower Surprise: There are two surprises—one for the reader and one for the book characters. The first is that Molly has a side plan she’s been keeping secret even from her teammates. She makes a critical phone call at this point in the story, unsure of what the results will be until later. She never tells Mr. Preston, Charlotte, or Juan Manuel about this, so it’s a surprise revealed just to us. The more traditional surprise comes when Rodney has been arrested and the previous charges against Molly have been dropped. Even so, Detective Stark is still having difficulty getting all the charges leveled at Rodney to stick. She needs Molly’s help.
Dig Deep Down: Mr. Preston makes a revelation to the team regarding his relationship with Molly’s late grandmother. Turns out, he and Gran were engaged at one time and their connection was significantly deeper than anyone in the room had realized. Molly doesn’t seem to grasp the full implications, but Charlotte does (and so does the reader). Molly, however, still has plenty to reflect on, as she remembers the final days with her sick grandmother and, particularly, Gran’s last request. What humans are willing to do for their family, friends, and lovers is underscored here. Molly has learned to judge true friends by their actions and, as such, she knows she’s not invisible to Juan Manuel. By him, she feels seen.
Execution of the New Plan: The team preps for the upcoming trial. Molly’s carefully delivered testimony, where she tells “her truth,” is what clinches the case. Rodney is put behind bars. Mr. Snow promotes Molly to head maid at the hotel and simultaneously demotes Cheryl, the tip thief, making Molly her boss. Juan Manuel, Charlotte, Mr. Preston, and Molly make plans to get together on Sunday nights for regular family-like dinners. Molly and Juan Manuel begin dating. All seems well in the world.
Final Image (pp. 492 – 504/Epilogue): The final twist that illuminates the theme, particularly with regard to how people who exist in plain sight can be “invisible,” is shared with the reader in these last few pages. So many individuals—like maids, doormen, dishwashers, and others—are overlooked by society with alarming frequency. Without spoiling the biggest reveal of all, let’s just say that this message is hammered home at the very end, and that the revelation it brings serves to complete this structurally fascinating and morally ambiguous mystery with yet another reminder from Molly Gray (and the author) that the truth is subjective.
THE LAST THING HE TOLD ME:
Author: Laura Dave
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, copyright May 2021
Pages: 344 (ebook edition)
The mistake I made with this book was choosing to start reading it at 8:30 PM on a weeknight. The story grabbed me from the Prologue onward, and it had me wishing at 2:00 AM, when I absolutely, positively had to go to bed, that I would’ve been a fast enough reader to finish it in one night.
The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave was an instant #1 NYT Bestseller and a winner of the GoodReads Choice Award for Best Mystery and Thriller of 2021. It’s been optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company for a limited Apple TV+ series, with Jennifer Garner now slated for the starring role. The author, along with her screenwriter husband Josh Singer, will be writing the film adaptation. Pretty impressive credentials for a book that’s been out for less than a year, but it’s a very fast-paced, compelling tale and it has, to date, over 42,000 five-star reviews on Amazon alone.
Here’s the back-cover blurb:
We all have stories we never tell. Before Owen Michaels disappears, he manages to smuggle a note to his beloved wife of one year: Protect her.
Despite her confusion and fear, Hannah Hall knows exactly to whom the note refers: Owen’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey. Bailey, who lost her mother tragically as a child. Bailey, who wants absolutely nothing to do with her new stepmother.
As Hannah’s increasingly desperate calls to Owen go unanswered; as the FBI arrests Owen’s boss; as a US Marshal and FBI agents arrive at her Sausalito home unannounced, Hannah quickly realizes her husband isn’t who he said he was. And that Bailey just may hold the key to figuring out Owen’s true identity—and why he really disappeared.
Hannah and Bailey set out to discover the truth, together. But as they start putting together the pieces of Owen’s past, they soon realize they are also building a new future. One neither Hannah nor Bailey could have anticipated.
In the words of Reese Witherspoon, who selected the novel for her book club as well as snapping up those film rights, this novel is the “ultimate page turner.” Based on my own experience with the story, I certainly agree.
Here’s my Blake Snyder Beat Sheet analysis:
Opening Image (Front Matter pp. 1–6; Prologue pp. 7–9): Hannah Hall’s new husband, Owen Michaels, used to tease her about her tendency to misplace things. About a week after his recent disappearance, she has a dream that she’s lost him, too.
Set-Up (pp. 10–30): On the day of her husband’s disappearance, a schoolgirl comes to the front door with a letter for Hannah. It’s from Owen, and it says: “Protect her.” Artistic Hannah, who works as a woodworking artist (or a “woodturner”), making upscale rustic furniture for wealthy clients, is talented at many things, but she’s not successful at developing a good relationship with her 16-year-old stepdaughter, Bailey. Hannah grew up with a largely absent mom and was, instead, raised by her kind grandfather, who first taught her to sculpt wood. She met Owen, a computer programmer and a widower, just over two years ago in New York City while he was there on a trip with his boss, Avett. Owen’s smile drew her in and their connection was undeniable. Soon, they were engaged and, about a year ago, they got married.
Hannah moved across the country to the Bay Area to be with him and his daughter, and the three of them live on a very nice floating home in Sausalito, California. Readers are introduced to their houseboat “neighborhood” on the bay, which Hannah thinks is beautiful. But her newlywed life isn’t all easy. She recalls the many times she’d tried to have a closer relationship with Bailey, but most attempts had fallen flat.
As Hannah tries repeatedly to reach Owen, she’s concerned because he’s not returning her calls. This is unlike him, and she’s mystified by it.
Theme Stated (pp. 32–33): Bailey has play practice, and when Hannah drives to the school to pick her up, her stepdaughter enters the car, deeply shaken. She, too, has received a note from Owen, although hers was placed in her locker along with a duffle bag. (More on that coming up.) In Owen’s note to Bailey, he writes: “You know what matters about me. And you know what matters about yourself. Please hold on to it.” Her dad seems to want to emphasize to her that, while some details may change, the essentials about each of them remain true.
Catalyst (pp. 30–33): Just before Bailey got into the car, Hannah had been listening to the radio. She heard that Owen’s start-up tech firm, known as The Shop, has been raided by the SEC and the FBI, following a 14-month investigation into the company. Owen’s friend/boss Avett, who is the CEO, has been taken into custody on embezzlement and fraud charges. When Bailey joins Hannah, both of them are scared for Owen’s safety and neither had a clue that there were such serious problems at his work. But there’s more. Not only did Bailey’s father leave her this cryptic message, he also left her a duffle bag stuffed with rolls of cash. Bailey estimates it’s over $600K.
Debate (pp. 33–53): As Hannah tries to deal with her shock and her personal confusion, she also finds herself questioning her parenting decisions. She’s never had to be fully in charge of Bailey by herself, and she worries about doing things right. But she has no choice but to try to figure it out. Owen isn’t there to help her, and for the first time, she wonders what will happen if he doesn’t return. Plus, there’s now this extra amount of money in their possession. What should she do with it?
Hannah’s longtime friend, Jules, who works as a photo editor for a San Francisco newspaper, comes over. Jules admits she knew about the raid that was coming and, furthermore, she confesses she’d secretly called Owen to warn him. Turns out, he wasn’t surprised it was happening. The only question he’d asked was how long he had to get out. Jules told him he had, maybe, a couple of hours.
Break into Two (p. 53): Based on what she’s now learned from Jules, Hannah realizes that Owen didn’t leave to save himself. Rather, he left for a reason that somehow involved Bailey. To try to save his daughter from something or someone he considered dangerous.
B Story (pp. 54–57): This subplot is all about the mother-stepdaughter relationship, particularly Hannah’s attempts to reach out to Bailey, to truly become a parent, and for the two of them to figure out how to relate to each other in Owen’s absence. Because of Hannah’s own childhood, she’s very sensitive when it comes to issues of parental abandonment. She desperately wants to make sure Bailey knows she’s loved and that she can trust Hannah. In a strange way, she wonders, did Owen’s decision to leave do them a favor with regard to their fledgling mother/child relationship?
Fun and Games (pp. 58–152): Not “fun” in the traditional sense, perhaps, but definitely the promise of the premise. Investigations begin in earnest—not just Hannah’s and Bailey’s attempts to figure out Owen’s whereabouts, but there’s a sudden appearance of a man from the U.S. Marshal’s office, Deputy Grady Bradford, who is (oddly) based in Austin, Texas, not in California. Grady claims he wants to protect Owen and, also, that he wants to be sure that Hannah is granted temporary custody of Bailey. He tells her, “Owen is not who you think he is.”
Hannah digs for clues where she can. She hacks into her husband’s laptop, fends off thinly veiled threats from a pair of FBI agents, and tries to find a lawyer she can trust. She eventually reaches out to a man named Jake, who’s not only a lawyer (albeit one who’s based in New York), but he’s also her ex-fiancé. In talking with him, Hannah recalls several strange conversations she’d had over the past couple of years with Owen. Upon reflection, things he said didn’t always add up. Details were occasionally inconsistent. She tries to help Bailey jog her memory, hoping there might be additional clues hidden in the past. Bailey can barely remember her life from before her mother’s death and her move to Sausalito with her father, but she does remember attending a wedding in Texas when she was a very little girl. She recalls a church and a football stadium. Coincidentally, the city in question turns out to be Austin.
Midpoint (pp. 152–159): Jake the lawyer calls Hannah with some disturbing news: Owen Michaels does not appear to exist. He either lied about his name or he lied about his personal details. Jake’s theory is that Owen was worried about his past potentially catching up with him. Jake thinks Hannah and Bailey may be in danger and invites them to come stay with him in New York for a while, but Hannah declines.
Bad Guys Close In (pp. 160–252): Bailey remembers that her boyfriend told her he’d tried to find Owen’s name in the contact list for Princeton University alums (since that’s the college Owen said he’d attended), but he couldn’t locate her dad. Bailey thought her boyfriend simply hadn’t searched in the right place, but now both Bailey and Hannah believe this was fabricated. That Owen studied someplace else altogether. That, in fact, he’d lived in a totally different part of the country. Hannah gets a call from the wife of the arrested CEO of The Shop. The two of them are hunting for information on Owen’s whereabouts. Hannah can tell from this call with Avett’s wife that Owen’s boss is guilty of the charges leveled against him and that his wife is aware of that, too. What Hannah still doesn’t know is whether Owen is equally guilty.
CNN is claiming more indictments are coming soon, and Hannah realizes that even though there isn’t a warrant out for Owen’s arrest yet, the Feds are threatening to come after anyone potentially involved in the company’s fraud. Hannah and Bailey review stories that Owen told them over the years, and they work together to remember the name of his favorite college professor. Hannah tracks down the man, who’s been teaching for almost 30 years at the same place: the University of Texas at Austin. On a hunch, Hannah and Bailey fly there, walk around campus, and visit the professor. The man remembers Owen, proof positive that Owen had lied about his life, but Hannah and Bailey still don’t know why. And they haven’t yet been able to figure out Owen’s real name.
However, they visit the church that Bailey remembers being at for that wedding. And they find a photograph of a female classmate of his that bears a striking resemblance to Bailey. The clues lead them to a bar near campus, but as soon as Hannah shows the owner of the bar a photo of Owen, he gets extremely angry. When Bailey walks in, the bar owner stares at her in shock and calls her by another name.
The truth starts to be revealed about Owen’s and Bailey’s actual backstory. The bar owner, they discover, is named Charlie, and he’s the brother of Bailey’s dead mom. Charlie’s dad is, therefore, Bailey’s grandfather. The grandfather—Nicholas—worked as a lawyer with links to a large crime syndicate, and Owen believed the “accident” that killed Bailey’s mother was a result of that interaction. Grief-stricken and furious, Owen gave evidence to the police about both Nicholas and the syndicate, then he changed his name and his young daughter’s name, altered many of the details of their lives, and moved them to California to start again. Bailey was too young at the time to remember much of this and just accepted her new life in Sausalito. At long last, Hannah knows Owen’s real name and why he and Bailey disappeared from Texas.
All Is Lost (p. 252): Just when Hannah has finally put the puzzle pieces together and is trying to pack and get the two of them away from these people and back home, Bailey disappears from the hotel.
Dark Night of the Soul (pp. 252–253): Hannah is searching all over the hotel for Bailey, running through all the places her stepdaughter might go, knowing how terrified Bailey must be right now after learning so much about her parents and her past. Hannah is mad at herself for not protecting Bailey the way Owen had wanted her to.
Break into Three (p. 253): Suddenly, Grady the U.S. Marshal appears on the scene. Despite having held back so much of the truth when Hannah had asked him for it, Grady now tells her that, by playing detective, she “certainly made a mess of things.” That said, he agrees to help her find Bailey and bring her back to safety.
Finale (pp. 254–340): Hannah wants her daughter to be free to continue living her life as “Bailey Michaels,” not to go into hiding or into some kind of witness protection program. Not to have to change her name again or avoid taking part in activities she loves so she can live under the radar. The only way for this to happen is if Hannah can somehow negotiate their freedom with Bailey’s grandfather Nicholas and with the cartel members who still want revenge against Owen.
Hannah understands that Owen wasn’t precisely who she’d thought he was, at least not as far as the specific details he’d told her. But she believes that when you love somebody, you accept all the parts of them. You accept them enough to not let the bad parts become the entire story. In order to truly protect Bailey, which has always been Owen’s deepest wish, Hannah must accept that she’ll likely have to live a life without her husband. She makes a deal with Bailey’s grandfather. Hannah and Bailey will get to continue living their regular lives, Nicholas will have a chance to get to know his granddaughter again, and the crime syndicate won’t be able to touch them. Nicholas can do this—however, this immunity agreement doesn’t extend to Owen. The crime bosses will come after Owen, if he reappears.
Bailey gets a brief phone call from her dad. She, too, realizes he can’t come back. That he would never be safe. Hannah knows there’s one thing that is true about Owen: There is nothing he wouldn’t do for his daughter. Ultimately, whatever is safest for Bailey is what Owen wants, and Hannah is willing to make the sacrifice to live an Owen-less life because she loves him so much… and she loves his daughter, too. Hannah and Bailey start moving closer to each other and begin to develop a genuine and trusting relationship.
Final Image (Epilogue pp. 341–344): It’s several years later and Hannah is exhibiting her work in LA. Inside the busy convention center, she sees a man who bears some resemblance to Owen. He changed in lots of ways, but he’s still wearing the wedding band she’d once made for him. They have only the briefest of interactions, but he lets her know that he still loves her, then walks away. Moments later, Bailey comes to visit her, bringing along her new boyfriend. Hannah’s stepdaughter greets her warmly and now calls her “Mom.”