“He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man.”
That’s the opening line of Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel “Waking Lions” (out last month from Little, Brown) and it pulled me right in. In just 18 words, a spell was cast and broken, and I couldn’t wait to go on.
It’s just been a few weeks since I’ve taken over the books beat from my friend Mary Ann Gwinn. (Confidential to MAG: I found $1.80 in Canadian coins in your desk drawer, and I’m keeping it.) And in that short time, my childhood dream of living in a library has almost come true: The books keep arriving, dozens of them every day. I would like to read every one of them — well, almost every one; I’ll pass on the self-help books and the how-to-train-your-cat-to-use-the-toilet manuals (one of those turned up the other day) — but I can’t.
This wealth of reading material has me thinking, a lot, about the power of a perfect opening line. Not that I’m saying fiction should be judged by one sentence; ideally, something like Nancy Pearl’s “Rule of 50” should be deployed. (In short: those under 50 should read at least 50 pages before giving up; those over 50 can subtract their age from 100 to get a page count.)
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But think of what an opening sentence can sometimes tell you, right away, of both a story and its particular flavor. Charles Dickens was a master of them; “A Tale of Two Cities” is the one everyone cites (you know, the best of times and the worst of times), but I quite like the brilliant six-word punch that opens “A Christmas Carol”: “Marley was dead: to begin with.”
Other classics: J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” (another perfect six-worder: “All children, except one, grow up.”); Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.”); Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”). And surely one of the greatest ever must be the opening sentence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude”: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
With those in mind, I prowled through the fiction shelves here at the office in search of opening-sentence gold. And I found plenty. All of the novels below are brand-new; all of them, I’m guessing, will reward further reading. Read on, for 10 delicious appetizers.
• “Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.”
Claire Fuller, “Swimming Lessons” (TinHouse, February)
• “September 30th, the day I received the news of my adoptive brother’s death, I also received a brand-new couch from IKEA.”
Patty Yumi Cottrell, “Sorry to Disrupt the Peace” (McSweeney’s, March 14)
In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife.
Domenico Starnone, “Ties” (Europa, March 7)
You don’t fall in love at first sight, or first kiss even, but many months later, at that indelible moment when you awake in her bed before sunrise, her breath hot on your back, arm draped across your ribs, the contours of her hips flowing into you, and you feel like you’re two interlocking puzzle pieces, built specifically to fit together with each other and no one else.
Tom McAllister, “The Young Widower’s Handbook” (Algonquin Books, February)
That summer I would ride my bike over the bridge, lock it up in front of one of the bars on Orchard Street and drift through the city on foot, recording.
Hari Kunzru, “White Tears” (Knopf, March 14)
On my tenth birthday, six months before she sleepwalked into the river, Mom burned the rabbit cake.
Annie Hartnett, “Rabbit Cake” (TinHouse, March 7)
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.
Mohsin Hamid, “Exit West” (Riverhead, March 7)
It was bright and windy, with the poppies flushing orange down the slopes of the bluffs, all mixed with swaths of blue lupine.
Peter Heller, “Celine” (Knopf, March 7)
The morning the letter arrived he was like a man in a shell, deaf to the voices in his head from a distant place, calling him, imploring him with old promises.
Odafe Atogun, “Taduno’s Song” (Pantheon, March 7)
History has failed us, but no matter.
Min Jin Lee, “Pachinko” (Grand Central Publishing, February)