The book you’re reading–or writing–has a main character who is grieving a loss. Someone died. He has a solitary tear. She collapses in a river of them. His heart is wounded. Hers is shattered.
On and on the author goes trying to show the reader how crushed her character is. Sometimes the result is cliché, sometimes it’s melodramatic, but one thing is certain: The less imaginative the author is, the more ineffective the scene is. You can’t yank true emotion from your reader with lazy writing.
I’m not through with Ethan Canin’s book, and frankly I don’t know what I think about it. But something–and I don’t know what it is yet–keeps pulling me into the story. It’s another one of those literary-genre types I learned about through Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction, so it’s slow and verbose, and it’s hard to know just what it is the author is trying to present sometimes. Or it is for me. Probably because the only reading time I generally have is about twenty minutes before I fall asleep. (BTW: some authors have tried to tell me their books are such page-turners, I’d be up all night, forbidden to sleep until I’ve read the last intense paragraph. They underestimate the irresistible draw sleep has over me after being awake since four a.m. Some excellent page-turners have entertained me in my waning moments of wakefulness, but the all-nighter has yet to happen.)
Wednesday, I cheated. I should’ve been writing, but my wrists have been hurting me–something that scares me worse than anything Stephen King can conjure up–and I spent the afternoon reading Ethan’s book instead. Some of the elements of the story began to come together, and I understood a bit of what was going on. Still, basically, it’s complicated.
But during Wednesday’s reading session, the main character’s mother died, something uncomplicated, something I understood without explanation. It happened while he was away at a boarding school, where his tuition had been paid by a wealthy benefactor. He came home for the funeral, then back to school, then home again after a long period.
His father comes out from the kitchen and starts talking.
“Made a salad Have you ever made a salad?”
“A couple times.”
“You wash the lettuce. Then you have to dry it. If you don’t dry it, the dressing comes out watery. I hate drying it. But I do it. On a paper towel. That’s the way she showed me how. She showed me a lot of this stuff, you know.”
“And then she would dry the paper towel on the windowsill,” I said, “so she could use it the next day.”
“That’s right. So I do it now, too. Come look.”
He went back into the kitchen.
When I came up behind him, he said, “There it is,” and pointed to the sill.
There it was. Damp. Folded over the top stile of the sash to catch the sun.
“I’ve used the same one every day now since–since it happened,” he said. “She’d like that. Dries good as new.” He pulled the roll from the shelf. “They’e Scott, see? She always bought Scott. So now I do, too.” Her apron was still hanging on the stove handle, and after he set the towels back he reached to straighten it. “Wish I could tell her.”
The scene goes on to describe other things she did that the father now does just the same. He says, “I miss her every day,” and afterward, he reaches to the stove and smooths “the hips of the apron.”
That is one of the most poignant descriptions of grief I believe I’ve ever read, and not a tear was dropped nor a heart mentioned.