This is the last of the four novels published on 6th November (although the hardback of Strange Girls has been out since July) I’m reviewing this month. I was eager to read it after coming across a couple of reviews by bloggers who found this novel much more engaging than they’d expected. Having nothing original to say about the plot without stumbling into spoilers, I’d love to refer you to those reviews but I have to confess I’ve forgotten where I found them, so if you’ve come across anything about this novel that might be of interest to other readers, do please paste the link in the comments section below.
One of the pleasures of Strange Girls and Ordinary Women, and other novels like it, is the gradual discovery of how the three stories interconnect. Yet there’s also potential for frustration en route as, just as we’re becoming absorbed in the world of one character, their section comes to an end and we are obliged to reattach ourselves to someone new. By the time we reach the third strand of the novel we’re feeling slightly battered by this process; then, having finally become acquainted with this new character, we’re thrown back in with the first. It’s not merely a matter of repeatedly making and breaking bonds with the protagonists, but with their satellites of minor characters who are more difficult to keep in mind.
I don’t object to a challenging read but, from my experience of Sugar and Snails, I do wonder if this three-part structure is more fun for the writer than the reader. Two of my point of view characters were a husband and wife who were not as open and honest with each other as they might have been. So far, so good, but the third strand was totally distinct from these two in location, time and character. While I thoroughly enjoyed weaving a path towards “the big reveal”, some early readers found the apparent disconnection a step too far. The novel was much more complicated than it needed to be. Yet I was anxious about abandoning the couple, not only because I’d put so much work into their creation, but because I was hedging my bets. What became clear to me in hindsight was that I thought that if a reader wasn’t so interested in Diana (the remaining single narrator) they might prefer Leonard or Renée. Yet what I was actually doing, in giving my hypothetical reader more choices, was diluting the potential for engagement with any character at all.
I worked with a mentor on the penultimate draft of Sugar and Snails who asked me, on our second or third meeting, “Who’s story is it?” I suppose my initial feeble answer was that the story belonged to everyone, but I was wrong. It’s the story of Diana and, although her parents’ relationship and attitudes to child-rearing have a profound effect on her character, the events are hers. Likewise, by the concluding chapters of Strange Girls, it’s clear that this is primarily the story of one of the three women and her struggle (as in Sugar and Snails) to be herself. I think the novel would have been more poignant had we seen it from her point of view the whole of the way through.
So what am I doing differently this time with my current three-handed WIP? For a start, there’s unity of time and they’re all living in the same small place. The hospital closure that connects them (Matilda as a patient; Janice as staff; Henry – who was George only a few days ago – as NIMBY homeowner) is apparent almost from the start. But this isn’t a single story told from three different points of view; there are connections between their separate lives for the reader to discover (or guess at) as the novel progresses.
I do still have a structural problem with this novel, however. Matilda’s backstory needs to come out in the end yet, because of her entrenched delusions, she can’t reveal this for herself. I did consider introducing a fourth point-of-view character who could show this to the reader on her behalf, but it would have meant a time jump which I thought too messy. Strange Girls includes an epilogue in which a minor character pulls the strands together, but this was something I’d have happily done without as a reader.
As I’m still formulating my opinion on this type of structure, I’d welcome your views. As a reader, how patient are you with not knowing how the separate strands link up? Can you offer any examples of where this three into one structure works well? As a writer, have you tried merging separate stories within a novel and how successful has this been?
Thanks to Tinder Press for my proof copy of Strange Girls. For another look at structure, please see my post This Is the Water and The Cold Cold Sea and my review of This Beautiful For my confession of how I’m swinging both ways regarding NaNo see my piece on the Inspired Quill Blog.