Red Leaves, by Thomas H. Cook, is the first book Donald Maass used as an example in his The Fire in Fiction, and believe me, Maass knew what he was doing. On the cover of the 2006 edition of this book is Harlan Coben’s blurb: “One of the best novels you’ll read this year–gripping, beautifully written, haunting, surprising, and devastating.”
I can’t say it better.
This book, nominally a mystery, contains the type of writing serious novelists aspire to: deep, multi-faceted, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking. I read it with a highlighter and a notepad. I read exerpts of it to my writing class–this is how to do it. This is what we’re striving for.
The surface story is about the disappearance of an eight-year-old child, but if that’s why you’re reading it, you’ll be terribly disappointed. There are no heroic sleuths in this novel.
Scratch a little deeper, and you may believe the story is about how a man deals with his son being the prime suspect in the child’s disappearance. Here, you’ll be closer to right.
The story is about a man who trudges through his life, like a hamster on a wheel, thinking everything is good, and discovers through a stinging slap on the cheek that what he believes–what he has always believed about his life and the people who populate it–is a lie. The story is about the pendulum of human emotion and the extremities to which it can swing; about the corrosive effects of suspicion; about the devastating results of living like an ostrich and the equally devastating results of discovering the truth.
This mainstream “mystery” novel is literature at its finest.
Whenever I read something of this caliber, I’m in awe, and I see how far I have to go as a writer. It’s almost discouraging. I look at my own work and believe it’s good, until I read something like this and realize my work is just so much snail slime on paper.
But Thomas H. Cook wrote twenty books before this one came out; I’ve written two. I imagine he looks back at his early novels and believes they too were just so much snail slime on paper. Everyone starts somewhere.