Yesterday afternoon, kids occupied, house relatively picked up, I crept into my bedroom and sat down with a drink and the book on the top of my reading pile, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Published in English in 2004, I’d had friends rave about the book and look at me incredulously when I admitted I hadn’t read it yet. “Oh, you’d love it, Shelah. You should go out and buy it right now.” With those recommendations in mind, I kicked up the footrest on the recliner, popped the top of my soda, and before the introduction was over, came across this passage:
The minutes and hours glided by as in a dream. When the cathedral bells tolled midnight, I barely heard them. Under the warm light cast by the reading lamp, I was plunged into a new world of images and sensations, peopled by characters who seemed as real to me as my room. Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over, until the breath of dawn touched my window and my tired eyes slid over the last page. I lay in the bluish half-light with the book on my chest and listened to the murmur of the sleeping city. My eyes began to close, but I resisted. I did not want to lose the story’s spell or bid farewell to its characters yet.
It’s now the next afternoon, and I’ve read 300 pages. The house is a mess, defrosted pork chops sit neglected in the fridge, waiting for me to pull myself from the armchair and figure out Sunday dinner, the girls went to church this morning without cute hair, because I waited until the last possible second to put the book down and start getting ready. I’ve fallen hard, and all I want to do is read. Unlike Daniel, The Shadow of the Wind‘s protagonist, I have a family and responsibilities to drag me away from the novel. Otherwise, I would have holed up in bed with a huge bottle of water and a box of granola bars for survival and read until I turned the last page, sobbing, as much for the end of the experience as for the conclusion of the story.
I read a lot of books, and once or twice each year, I get so swept up by a story that everything else in my life falls by the wayside. The first time I had the experience I was in first grade, reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, and even though I didn’t understand a lot of what happened in the later books, I fell into a depression when I came to the end of the last book. I was so sad that these characters, who had become friends and intimates, were going to return ghostlike to the bookshelf. As a teenager, I stayed up late with Mitch McDeere as he gained maturity and evaded the bad guys in John Grisham’s The Firm. While in grad school I set aside boring textbooks to dream of eating oysters at Delmonico’s and seeing menacing street urchins carrying Derringers with Lazlo Kreizler’s gang in Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. As a young mom, I got bitten hard by Stephenie Meyer’s vampires, and my husband knew that every time a new book was released, he’d need to command the troops until I finished consuming the text.
I know what you’re thinking– John Grisham and Stephenie Meyer? Those aren’t great books. And I agree that sometimes both authors could use an editor who employs the red pen more liberally, but both Grisham (at least in the early days) and Meyer know how to tell a story that captivates. I’ve read plenty of beautiful prose that doesn’t leave me hungry for what happens next. Ruiz Zafon seems to combine both good writing and great storytelling, at least so far. I still have two hundred pages (and then his next book, also waiting on the nighstand) until I can give you a definitive answer.
Until then, you tell me: What makes a great story? What are some of the most engrossing stories you’ve read lately?