Sunday, May 18, 2008

The First Lines

Your first kiss. First love. First baby. Baby’s first steps. Memorable firsts.

As in life, very often in literature a good first can be priceless. The first few lines of a book. I pulled some of my favorites from my shelf and reread the first few sentences, wondering if there was something there that kept me reading or was I curious enough about the story to persevere, even when the beginning didn’t grab me.

Here is a sampling:

1. In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheater, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was lucky.

2. All right, so I’m a diva. There are worse things—a mass murderer, a bigot, a telephone solicitor.

3. You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.

4. The Tuesday before it happened was a perfect summer day. Driving through town on my way home, I saw two young girls holding hands as they tried to cross a street against the light. They would start to cross, then stop; start again, stop. Finally, all the traffic sighed and halted; and the girls bolted to the other side of the street and began to laugh and push each other, exhilarated by their survival.

5. Three days before her death, my mother told me—these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive. That was all she said.

6. One evening early in the summer, conversation was going around Grandmother Curtiss’s dinner table, as it was wont to do. Earlier dinner conversations had turned to yelling matches, with each person talking louder than the last and sometimes pounding on the table.

7. This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.

8. If Annabelle hadn’t found a body lying under “Sherman,” she wouldn’t have been late for her appointment with the Python. But dirty bare feet stuck out from beneath her nana’s ancient Crown Victoria. One extremely cautious glance under the car revealed they were attached to a homeless man known only as Mouse, who was famous in her Wicker Park neighborhood for his lack of personal hygiene and a fondness for cheap wine.

9. It wasn’t every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of a road, not even in Dean Robillard’s larger-than-life world. “Son of a …” Dean slammed on the brakes of his brand-new Aston Martin Vanquish and pulled over in front of her.

10. February the fifteenth is a very special day for me. It is the day I gave birth to my first child. It is also the day my husband left me. As he was present at the birth I can only assume the two events weren’t entirely unrelated.

11. The scent of slaughter, some believe, can linger in a place for years. They say it lodges in the soil and is slowly sucked through coiling roots so that in time all that grows there, from the smallest lichen to the tallest tree, bears testimony.

12. I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

13. When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss.

14. I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins.

1. Lucky by Alice Sebold
2. Welcome to the Great Mysterious by Lorna Landvik
3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
4. Never Change by Elizabeth Berg
5. Gone for Good by Harlan Coben
6. Sins of the 7th Sister by Huston Curtiss
7. The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
8. Match Me if You Can by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
9. Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
10. Watermelon by Marian Keyes
11. The Loop by Nicholas Evans
12. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
13. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
14. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

What do you think? Would you have kept reading past the first few lines of these books?


Anonymous said...

Another fantastic one--maybe the best ever, in my opinion, are the opening lines from One Hundred Years of Solitude. Twenty-plus years later, they still haunt me with their excellence. I also know, recently read this, in fact, that John Irving considers those his best first words of any of his works. I have to agree.


Julie Layne said...

That's a fun exercise. I recognized the ones from nearly all of these books I have actually read (and yes, I kept reading, but I almost always do ... I'm a sucker for punishment. Heh.), but I also recognized lines from books I have NOT read yet, simply because of reading cover copy or reviews, even though I'd never read the first lines. How crazy is that? I'd say pretty significant.

Need to go contemplate my first line now ... :)

Joan Mora said...

Great post!
We've got some work to do!

Wila said...

When I read your blog today the first thing I too thought of was One Hundred Years of Solitude. I remember picking it up off the shelf at the bookstore, reading the first page and hurrying to pay for the book so I could begin it immediately. There have been times when a book's dedication has snared me as well.