Janet Evanovich and Laura Hillenbrand–an odd couple

I read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken in the late spring and was so impressed that I put it on the summer reading list in the hopes that some students might read it.  I had read a terrific review of it and standing in Border’s (when there was such a place, sigh) I read the opening pages and then just bought it and took it home.  I had loved Seabiscuit and I thought when I read that book of Samuel Johnson’s observation that “any life well told is worth reading about”–who knew that would include a horse’s life, but it does?

Louis Zamperini’s life is presented to us as sort of bell curve in narrative structure–what is known about his very early years and what happened to him in recent years are engaging but brief bookends–the real meat of the biography is in the parts leading up to and including his adventures in World War II and the immediate aftermath of that.  Viktor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning that from the Nazi concentration camps, “The best of us did not return.” I have always taken this to mean that those who gave their lives for others–who fed others even when starving or who took places of others on the transports, did not make it and so many of those who did survive feel some survivor’s guilt. I was put in mind of this particularly when reading the episode on raft which after the plane is shot down.  What prevents the men from turning on each other–especially after the betrayal regarding the food? Zamperini is physically tough and mentally remarkably resilient.  Frankl (borrowing from Nietzsche) says that those who survived the death camps found a “Why?” to live for that allowed them to deal with almost any “How?” 

The way that Zamperini keeps inventing “Why’s” to live for strikes me as astonishing and it continues to show up when he rebuilds his life after his freedom and a period of deep difficulty.  Hillenbrand, as she did to some extent in Seabiscuit, manages to tell a story of perseverance and redemption without either the trait (perseverance) or the outcome (redemption) being cloying or pedantic.  (It also strikes me as a commentary about Hillenbrand’s own life which is a constant struggle–but I don’t want that to seem reductive.) That is quite a feat in an age of relentless cynicism and snarkiness.  I’ll be interested to what any of my students thought about it.

I have read all 17 of Janet Evanovich’s numbered Stephanie Plum mysteries (One for the Money all the way to Smokin’ Seventeen)–I know that there are some stories outside this oeuvre but I haven’t read those. Why do I read this series?  Well, writing that is humorous is hard to come by and there are times when Evanovich is laugh-out-loud funny (not just lol funny) in ways that few others (Christopher Buckley, Richard Russo, Steve Martin, David Lodge, and Woody Allen come to mind) can pull off. 

Part of what makes the series work (when it does work–and for a stretch of novels it DID NOT work) is Evanovich’s blending (or smashing together) of two genres that usually do not go together–the mystery and the romance.  Now this is not exactly Sir Philip Sidney inventing the “mixed mode” in Arcadia by blending the pastoral with the philosophical and prose with poetry or Orwell marrying the genres conducive to allegory such as satire and political parody with the genres of verisimilitude such as the thriller, naturalism, and psychological realism in 1984, but it can be pretty good.  Evanovich honors the romance novel’s roots by having Stephanie stuck between two fabulous but flawed men (heck, I think I’m in love with Morelli and Ranger) but unable to commit to either one–and they can’t commit to her.  Obstacles are thrown in the way of each relationship and they are surmounted only to be followed by other obstacles (it is not quite Jane Austen but you get the idea). Evanovich is really put to the test because once Stephanie decides, or once the obstacles to marriage are removed then the series will end–it has to.  Jane Eyre (the novel) does not survive the marriage; ditto Emma and others all the way down to the finest Harlequin Romances.  (See Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” for a Western take on the “marriage” ending a particular period in the town’s history.)

Mysteries often function in series by setting up a series of single problems that need to be resolved and that can contain a continuing cast of characters (even the villains can continue from novel to novel as representatives from Conan Doyle’s Moriarity to Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter make clear). Each problem/crime is resolved by the closing pages but the next novel presents a different problem.  The mystery, then, often functions in a series–and the romance novel, which is not series-friendly (though occasionally handled in trilogies or quartets), wouldn’t ordinarily go together but when Evanovich is at her best and utilizing her characters from central casting (goofy grandmother, long-suffering father, outrageous sidekick, moronic and despicable boss, disappointed mother, and various goofball minor characters) she is really good and can make you forget the manic implausibility of it all.  For my money the early ones are still the best–but maybe that’s the newness of discovery. 

I haven’t quite finished Michael Lewis’ The Big Short so I think I’ll write about that along with David Foster Wallace (Consider the Lobster and other Essays) and Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw for next week.  Other nonfiction such as Here’s Looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Personal Ethics by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz could also make an appearance; it was a busy summer reading nonfiction.  Also coming in the next few weeks a brief entry on “The Most Dangerous Game” and a nice riff on that by Algis Budrys and an entry on George Pelecanos’ The Cut.  Pelecanos is the finest writer about race in America since the death of Ralph Ellison–and he is on the short list of must-read novelists (of any sort).



Filed under books and learning, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Janet Evanovich and Laura Hillenbrand–an odd couple

  1. Thomas Johnson

    You take special note that it is Jane Eyre as Bronte wrote it that “does not survive the marriage.” There are plenty of film/television adaptations I still have left to see, but do any of them actually go beyond the timeline set up in that last chapter? It would be an intriguing contrast to Cary Fukunaga’s new film, which omits the epilogue, leaving the marriage implied.

    Though I’ve only seen the first of the films in the Bridget Jones Diary series, and never read any of the books, the big complaint I’ve read from fans about the sequel, and a third film that’s in-development, is that it tries to maintain the romantic tension between Renee Zellweger and Hugh Grant while still maintaining the happy, marital status-quo between the former and Colin Firth. Firth’s fans, who I’m guessing make up a significant portion of the viewership, are enraged that his character is basically Zellweger’s “doormat.”

    • Thomas, how wonderful to have counted you as a student once upon a time. Your question(s) get to the heart of marriage as a fictional trope that marks the end of something (barbarism in the case of “Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” but things are not nearly so clear in Measure for Measure–my favorite Shakespeare–and other places). It might be interesting to observe sitcoms for their use of the tension of potential mates–it’s no doubt been done but despite my love of the mediocre I don’t watch enough television to weigh in.

      • Thomas Johnson

        Though I haven’t seen much of either the original UK “The Office” or its US counterpart, this article by a TV critic I regularly read is an engaging indictment of the tendency for television writers and networks to keep sexual tension between characters perpetually unresolved. I think he would argue that, on television at least, stories with a heavy romantic component can survive marriage: http://www.nj.com/entertainment/tv/index.ssf/2009/1/the_office_why_jim_and_pams_we.html

        I would argue that the ability of a story to remain engaging after the two primary love interests marry would depend on whether or not they had substantively dealt with those individual dilemmas that had kept them estranged throughout the story, as opposed to looking at marriage as a panacea for or distraction from those problems. I don’t doubt, for example, that even if Catherine Earnshaw had married Heathcliff instead of Edgar Linton in Wuthering Heights, that the novel still could have continued for 200 pages — I think the penchant for tormenting each-other, or at least for being petty in general, would have undermined any initial marital stability.

        On the other hand, Jane Eyre ends after Jane marries Rochester not exactly because of the union itself, but because the marriage — between a humbled Rochester and a Jane who has managed to reject the false dichotomy set-up by St. John between spiritual salvation and human passion — coincides with the resolutions of their respective internal dilemmas. Though, since Bronte ends the novel with a quotation from St. John, it’s a little unclear if either she or Jane are really religiously settled; the slightly discordant note is indicative of how, in my opinion, Jane Eyre is first and foremost about a young adult determine her own religious beliefs amid all the doctrines offered to her, rather than a love story.

  2. John McGean

    I loved Unbroken as well, Dan–really engaging. And your blog makes me smile, that writing style can be as strong a mnemonic as sight or scent. I’d know your writing anywhere. So good!

    Looking forward to seeing you and Donna in just a little while now!

    John McGean

  3. Dave Tonrey

    Mr. McMahon – just came across your blog. Your writing takes me back to English 101, Fall 1982. Good Times! I loved “Unbroken!”, and have recommended it to anyone and everyone. I gave my copy to Wells, who passed it on to Fenton. Not even mine, actually. A former Navy shipmate leant it to me! “Unbroken” is one of the most inspiring stories I’ve come across. I can’t recall too many books I’ve read that made me want to become a better human being. This one did; not that anything’s changed (yet)! In all seriousness, this is a definite must for the Summer Reading list for all DM students; past, present, and future. Look forward to more from the blog.

    Dave Tonrey ’86

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s