Countless and precious childhood memories of mine involve my mother and a bookstore. If you are going to indulge your children, it is always a good and sneaky idea to better some brain cells at the same time and my mom knows that that better than most.
She has a trick I adore for picking out new books: analyse the first sentence. You can learn a lot from a first line in a book – what is the tone? do you like the voice? are you already curious? are you already bored? is it cheesy? or are you hooked?
Sometimes you can literally (haha) get sucked in by a book from the very first line.
“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
Oh, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, how I loved reading you. The first line is heartbreaking as is the entire book, but it is the kind of colonial Caribbean heartbreak that everyone should read once in their lives. The detail literally jumps off the pages – the fact that our protagonist Florentino notices unrequited love in something as banal and repetitive as the scent of bitter almonds is a preview of the detail reflected in the rest of the novel.
“The village of Holcolmb stands on the high wheat plains of Western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.”
In Cold Blood was another favorite read, by Truman Capote: Horrifying and incredibly readable, Capote created a new genre of writing with this book and the first line captures this. The book is non-fiction, but a novel at the same time. The fact that Kansans call Holcolm ‘out there’ is reflective of the countless interviews Capote undertook to get to the heart of the murder case that would come to consume him. The fact that the town is ‘lonesome’ is reflective of Capote himself by the time he finished writing. It is a genius first line that is even more powerful after you have finished the book.
“Then there was the bad weather.”
A Moveable Feast is another favorite, by Ernst Hemingway. It feels like you are entering into the middle of a rant – one that both loves and hates its subject. For anyone who has lived in Paris, this is quite reflective of the city. Moving to Paris feels like you are moving into the middle of a story that has been taking place for a very. long. time. No matter how hard you try, the city always has a step up on you. But that is part of its charm. And this book is charmingly and lovingly accurate.
(Note for the Brussels crowd: You can take comfort in the fact that bad weather in Paris still doesn’t come close to bad weather in Brussels.)
“One night in the middle of June, three brokenhearted people walked into Buena Vista Park at nearly the same time, just after dark.”
How great is that? Why are they heartbroken? Why are they walking into a park if they are heartbroken? Just after dark sounds a bit ominous, doesn’t it? I am already hooked on The Great Night by Chris Adrian.
Do you have any favorite first lines?
(This post may or not have been inspired by my latest online obsession: Goodreads.)