alexandra alger


Archive for the tag “Daphne du Maurier”

Great First Lines

“Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be.”

First line of Rabbit is Rich, the third in Updike’s four-book saga about the life and times of everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.

After a sentence like that, how you can you not read on to find out who or what’s running out of gas? In case you’re wondering: “The fucking world is running out of gas.” It’s 1979, and the shortage is both real and metaphorical.

There are moments when I need the inspiration that comes from reading the opening lines of great novels. I tend to respond most to those that thrust me in the middle of something, so that I have no choice but to read a few more sentences, if only to orient myself in the new world—and usually, once I read a few more sentences, I want to read a few more. And then I’m hooked.

Here’s a random sampling of memorable first lines from the Alex Alger library.

“It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.” The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead

Like a match struck in a darkened room: Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o’clock on an evening in July.” The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem

“Roy would not have noticed the strange boy if it weren’t for Dana Matherson, because Roy ordinarily didn’t look out the window of the school bus.” Hoot, Carl Hiaasen

“It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.” A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

“His children were falling from the sky.” Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

“Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.” The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White

“I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn’t my usual kind of job.” People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks

“Our mother performed in starlight.” Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

“Selden paused in surprise.” The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

And—one of my all-time favorites:

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

Agents and editors always tell aspiring writers to avoid opening with a dream. That’s got to be because if you can’t do it as well as Daphne du Maurier does, what’s the point? Of course, no rule really applies to accomplished writers. Donna Tartt begins The Goldfinch with a dream, and no one minded. Certainly not the Pulitzer Prize Board. (“When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”)

Max de Winter and Elizabeth Bennet–in the same sentence!

I found myself taking Rebecca off the bookshelf. Not to re-read it, which I’ve done a number of times over the years. I’d been thinking about how to handle someone was not answering my phone calls or emails about an important matter, and how personally I should take this, when all of a sudden I thought of Max de Winter, impassively tolerating Mrs. Van Hopper and her vulgar questions.

Strange, isn’t it? Max de Winter. Why on earth should I think of him and Mrs. Van Hopper? I read Rebecca when I was in my teens. I remember finding Max attractive, for a middle-aged—his face “arresting, sensitive, medieval….” I understood why the naive young narrator married him (not that she had much choice—staying with Mrs. Van Hopper was a no go).

Reading again those early pages in which the narrator and Max meet, I now see that Max wasn’t much of a role model, at all. In his future wife’s eyes (and my teen-aged ones), his manners are irreproachable, and if he is distant, it’s because he has to be, to keep the Van Hoppers of the world at bay. But really, as we learn later, his aloofness is a form of self-protection. He’s riddled with guilt. Taking a broader view, he’s a terrible husband to his young second wife. We know he has his reasons—and he shapes up, sort of—but he’s no kind of role model.

If we’re talking strictly about how to handle difficult people, I would try to learn from Elizabeth Bennet, my favorite Jane Austen character. She refuses to sugarcoat the truth, but manages to express it with uncommon adroitness. Think of how she handles her first marriage proposal, from Mr. Collins. She tells him “no” three times, and he still refuses to believe she’s not simply being coy in the way of “elegant” females. She cries, “I do assure you, Sir, that I have no pretension whatsoever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed.” One of my favorite scenes in Pride and Prejudice is when Lady Catherine de Bourgh tries to bully Elizabeth into rejecting an offer of marriage that she has heard—erroneously—that her nephew Darcy has made. Elizabeth coolly holds her own against the snobbish old woman, telling her whether or not she marries Darcy is her own business. “How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs, I cannot tell; but you certainly have no right to concern yourself in mine. I must beg, therefore, to be importuned no farther on the subject.”

Oh, to have a reason to use that last line!

So what would Elizabeth do, faced with my dilemma, a person who refuses to engage? She isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. I’m guessing she would, in all good humor, continue to call until she reached him. And that is what I will do.

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