Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Hardtack Effect

I've just finished Down by the River, the third in Robyn Carr's Grace Valley trilogy.  Three books seems just about right for this series; by the end of the last one, I'd finally figured out who Sam, George, and Standard were, and had stopped puzzling over who was who every time one of the J-named characters popped up: June, John, Jessie Jim, Justine, Jurea, and finally, Jamie.

Carr does a nice job of juggling her many characters so that all the stories stay fresh and interesting, albeit a bit predictable in places.  Bad guys are clearly bad guys, poor women who need rescuing get help, people long thought gone for good return whether wanted or not, and everyone is able to build a happy life.

But in books two and three, just when I'd have worked up to a nice reading rhythm, Carr plunks a hockey puck of recap into the story.  It was like those "Previously on" intros to shows like Grey's Anatomy or Glee -- but stuck in the middle of this week's episode, not before the credits!

I understand why this is useful for the reader who's new to Grace Valley or doesn't recall gobbets of plot from an earlier book.  But Carr makes no effort to slip these recaps into any context, such as having an old-timer explain the situation to a character new to that book.  I'm not sure that could have been done in every instance, but particularly in cases where Jim (the hero, a newcomer to Grace Valley) didn't know what was going on, June (the heroine and lifelong resident) could have explained it to him, and in doing so explained it to the newby readers.

Instead, these recaps are baldly devoid of any character's POV -- they're written as if recitals by an omniscient narrator -- and they stop the story dead in its tracks.  Fluffy tender biscuit stories stopped by hardtack.  It was jarring every time it happened.

So I asked myself if this was necessary or was there a better way of getting new readers up to speed?  Coincidentally, I'd gone to the library yesterday and took out books 2-4 of Nora Roberts' Chesapeake Bay series.  I opened Rising Tides immediately after finishing Down by the River, and the very first scene is Ethan (hero for Chesapeake Bay #2) getting up, showering, shaving, and getting breakfast.  All the while, he's thinking about his situation -- which just happens to recap pretty tidily everything that happened in Chesapeake Bay #1.

Is it artful and elegant?  Maybe not -- but it's done without sacrificing a principal character's POV, and it got the job done without losing any of that lovely fluffy biscuit feeling we can get from romances.

Sometimes "fluffy" is a compliment!

1 comment:

  1. So bad so sad: Nora is a goddess and everyone should blatantly copy her! Balogh does the same with her books -- you never have to go back to understand what's happening (because it happened in an earlier book).

    Is it the author? The editor? The uncomplaining knee*jerk*must*buy reader (and I'll admit, I am for some authors).

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