Literary Links: Great First Lines

“Call me Ishmael.” The first sentence in Herman Melville’sMoby Dick” is considered one of the greatest opening lines for a novel. Other classics often cited for their great opening lines include “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and Jane Austen’sPride and Prejudice.” So, what makes an opening line great? Stephen King reflected on this in a 2013 interview with Joe Fassler: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” Here are a few contemporary novels whose first lines manage to do just that.

Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry book cover“The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday.” So begins the novel “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce. Immediately, I found myself wondering what was in the letter, who wrote the letter and to whom it was written. I had to keep reading to find the answers to these questions. In this novel, the author examines the concepts of hope and redemption with a charming tale of a retired husband and father who takes a unique, impulsive and circuitous journey to fulfill a self-imposed quest to aid a dying woman. The story it captures is both poignant and humorous.

Jeanne Ray begins her novel, “Calling Invisible Women,” with “I first noticed I was missing on a Thursday.” This provocative sentence leads into a story about a wife and mother in her fifties who feels invisible to her family and the world around her. Her only worth seems to be in the services she provides — cooking dinner, doing the laundry and keeping the house clean. Imagine her surprise when she wakes up one Thursday to find herself physically invisible, but no one seems to notice. Ray uses a satirical voice to explore middle age, family dynamics and a woman’s role in modern society.

In the Shadow of the Banyan book coverIn the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner tells the story of the Cambodian Civil War as seen through the eyes of a 7-year-old girl. “War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his.” This tumultuous and violent period in Cambodia’s history is illustrated through the deeply personal and tragic account of a family’s upheaval and loss. Ratner’s writing is both poetic and heartbreaking as she tells the story of a child forced to grow up too quickly.

Written in a series of vignettes, Dawn Raffel’s memoir, Secret Life of Objects book coverThe Secret Life of Objects” explores her life through an examination of the items she owns. A momentary recognition illustrated in her opening line “Every morning I drink coffee out of a mug that I took from my mother’s house,” begins a series of reflections about the life stories these objects represent. After reading this, I took time to look around my house and ponder items that I regularly ignore except to move them when I am cleaning. It was a wonderful journey down memory lane.

Ami McKay introduces the main character in “The Virgin Cure” with this intriguing first line: “I am Moth, a girl from the lowest Virgin Cure book coverpart of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.” And thus, begins the story of 12-year-old Moth and her struggle to survive the social and physical hardships of the lowest economic strata of New York City in the 1870s. Thirty thousand children were reported living on the street during this period, and McKay uses poetic prose and rich details to tell the story of Moth, a street urchin and “almost prostitute.”

And finally, in “Flight Behavior” by Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior book coverwe find a story about survival. “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.” So begins the journey of Dellarobia Turnbow, a young wife and mother isolated and numbed by poverty. When Della stumbles across monarch butterflies who have inadvertently migrated into the harsh Appalachian region, she finds her life upended. Kingsolver expertly parallels Della’s struggles with those of the butterflies who struggle to survive in an increasingly hostile environment.