Sunday, October 20, 2013

How Not to Kill Off Characters

A postmistress withholds letters that pass through her hands, changing the lives of the citizens of her Cape Cod town.

That's the promise dangled before readers of Sarah Blake's The Postmistress.   What a tempting story! I said as I opened Blake's book.

Trouble is, she didn't keep her promise.   I'll admit that I kept turning the pages, hungry to know what happened to the three stars of her tale.  But I put up with a heap of overwrought prose ("Darling!" says the newlywed doctor, rushing back to his petite wife when he really should be getting out to that mother in labor),  a helping of improbable plot points ("The war has broken me!" says the female reporter, who then goes about acting quite unbroken), and a big smack of unintentional humor.

We find that humor in death.  Postmistress is set at the beginning of World War II.  All of England hides in cellars and bunkers as Luftwaffe planes buzz overhead.  America debates with itself whether to lend a hand.    Somebody dies.  You would expect as much, this being a war story and all.  And the possibilities for killing off characters in a war book are rich and varied.  But Blake chose to . . .

Well, let me put it this way.  Suppose I set a story in a steel mill, one rife with labor troubles.  If I need a death, I can make a bridge beam fall on the foreman.  Or I can send the idealistic hero down a dark alley where he meets three looming shadows, one of whom carries a steel pipe.  And let's not forget the morbid possibilities in a molten vat of liquid iron.  There's a screaming way to die, oh yes.   So why, with all these choices at my fingertips, do I make the secretary die from a bad baloney sandwich? 

Yes, when Blake killed off Character X, it felt like Billy Crystal photo-bombing a Lifetime Movie.

And the postmistress got less time on stage than the war reporter.  

But I hung around, even if my patience wore thinner with every passing chapter.

Another funny thing:  I was more than eager to get my hands on a new story, having spent so many weeks laboring through Anna Karenina (where, by the way, every single word and gesture of every single character rang true, and the translators kept the prose as clear as water).  So I open up my new book and what do I find?  One of the characters reading Anna K

With such reading woes, I'm lucky I get to eat the yummy Turkey Broccoli Hollandaise this week:

I shall be very happy lifting a forkful of this to my mouth.  Unless, of course, I choke on a chunk of turkey, or mortally cut myself opening the can of french-fried onions, or slip on a squashed floret that has dropped to the floor, or . . .

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