What is it Tolstoy said about unhappy families? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps Tolstoy is right — I don’t know. But the exact opposite is true about the books — both fiction and nonfiction — I’ve read in the past few years about loss and life afterward.
The wonderful books (and I am working on an annotated bibliography to share here) are all great for a variety of reasons. They vary in focus, tone, purpose, style, and content, but each of them were helpful in some way.
The bad ones (all fiction, by the way) share one common trait. They simply are not realistic, at least not according to life as I and every single man and woman I have ever known have experienced it. And because I love to read, and because I love to relax with a good novel, and because there are some great novels about men and women overcoming loss, and because I know these bad books could have been better, the fact that they aren’t irritates me a bit. So here is my open letter to anyone who is planning to sit down at the keyboard tomorrow and write a novel about a man or woman whose life has been turned upside down and inside out.
Dear Author or Author-to-be,
I’ll cut to the chase (sorry for the cliche). If you’re going to write a novel in which your main character has suffered or does suffer a significant loss such as the loss of a spouse, marriage, livelihood, etc, please do not resort to cheesy plots and cheap tricks. What do I mean? Here’s just a few examples of plot twists to avoid:
1. Main character discovers that their recently-deceased/ex-spouse has been keeping a huge secret. An illegitimate child or maybe an entire 2nd family, a long-time, serious affair, massive debt that threatens to leave the main character without a home or means of living, a life of crime (usually white-collar), etc.
2. Main character is initially left penniless but almost immediately inherits from their grandmother/favorite aunt a coastal cottage and enough money to maintain it and live without working. OR they inherit from their spouse or are awarded enough money in the divorce settlement to live comfortably (at the very least) for the rest of their life. Main character rarely holds down a full-time job; if he/she does, it is type of artistic career, most usually that of an artist.
3. Main character has 3 (if female) friends OR 1 (if male) friend who they have for years been meeting every week for breakfast/lunch/dinner or to play squash/basketball. Said friend(s) rally round, of course, and come up with the perfect plan to help the main character bounce back from their loss. OR main character comes up with their own plan and friend(s) are merely the sounding board and support team.
4. Main character follows said plan (see #3) and embarks on one of the following: a road trip, usually across country in a convertible; a quest to accomplish a list of tasks, often provided in a letter from their recently-deceased loved on or from a magazine article read by a friend or from a list they wrote many years ago when still a student; or a move (temporary or permanent) to a cottage in the woods/on the beach/in a coastal town in Maine.
5. Main character travels to Greece or Provence.
6. Main character meets someone of the opposite gender who has also experienced some tragic loss. This “someone” is either someone they were romantically involved with years ago and have never really forgotten or is some mysterious stranger.
7. Main character is drawn to this person (see #6) and a romance hovers on the horizon; however, something threatens the burgeoning romance. Possibilities: guilt feelings on the part of the main character or new romantic interest or both; disapproval of family members (usually grown children either in college or in their early 20’s); job change which requires new romantic interest to move away; fear of being hurt again on the part of the main character or new romantic interest or both; or return of ex/soon-to-be-ex, who has become disillusioned with new partner and wants to rekindle romance with the main character or new romantic interest.
8. Main character and new romantic interest eventually overcome all obstacles and are obviously destined to marry.
These story lines have been used ad nauseum. For those of us who have dealt with a significant life change ourselves, these story lines can be insulting and irritating. And you don’t need to resort to such cheap and cheesy stuff. Really! Talk to people who have dealt with a major loss, with people who are redesigning their life because they have no other choice. Trust me, there are some inspiring people out there whose stories could be the basis of a fantastic novel. I hope you’ll give it a shot; if you do, I promise I’ll buy your book!
There you have it. I hope someone who writes great fiction reads this list and writes a novel that resonates with those of us who have walked this path. Better yet, several writers and more than a few novels, all with different kinds of main characters — a variety of ages, races, genders, and life circumstances. All dealing with their “new normal” as best they can. More wonderful books that are great for a variety of reasons!
If you know of any books that focus in some way on life after loss that you’d like to recommend I include, I hope you’ll share the title, author, and a little bit about the book. You can either include that information in a comment or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks so much!