Wednesday, October 20, 2010
A Single to Rome
Sarah Duncan began her RNA talk by asking the audience if any of us had ever had a Shirley Valentine moment. You know, that moment when you're on holiday in an amazing place and you think "I could chuck it all in and just stay here for the rest of my life". Most of us stood. She then asked everyone to sit, unless they'd actually done it. Only a handful of people remained standing. Those are the people readers want to read about, she said. The people who not only want to change their live, but who do.
A Single to Rome is the story of a woman who changes her life. However, the story doesn't start at the moment of change (where Natalie loses her job and arrives in Rome). It starts about 5 or 6 chapters before that, and I'll admit those opening chapters did not grab me.
My other very clear memory from Sarah's RNA talk was her telling us that readers invest not only money but (more importantly) their time in our books, and in order to ensure they want to spend their time on our stories, we should imagine being stuck in a lift with our characters. Is this character someone we'd want to be stuck in a lift with?
My answer to Natalie in the opening chapters of this novel was a resounding 'No!'. She spends the first few chapters alternately crying for or cringingly chasing the boyfriend who has dumped her. Happily, Natalie not only grew on me, to the point where I really sympathised with her, but two thirds through the book I suddenly realised: Natalie is me!
Okay, so I didn't run away to live in Rome because my boyfriend dumped me and I'd lost my job. But my brief trip to Rome changed me in similar ways to how it changed Natalie.
In the beginning of the story, Natalie has a good job. She's successful, respected, good at what she does, and she earns good money. That could be me. But through the story [Spoiler alert!] Natalie discovers that material success isn't enough. It is more important to love the work you do, and to find meaning in it.
This is the challenge I've faced this year. I no longer believe in what I do. I want my work to have greater meaning. And though this feeling has been slowly building over many months, it was in those few precious days in Rome that this truth dawned on me. Like Natalie, I discovered the meaning of my life in Rome. I discovered that friends and family are more important than any lifestyle, and that being true to yourself and your principles is more important than any pay cheque. (Though I'm not so far gone that I don't realise life can be bleak without a decent income!).
Aspiring writers are usually told to bring the hero and heroine together as early as possible in the story. And in most romances it's pretty clear from the start who the hero is. Sarah Duncan keeps the reader guessing until mere pages from the end of the book. Which man does Natalie end up with?
You'll have to read the book yourself to find out.
I still think that every single thing that Sarah Duncan shared in her talk is valid. But here's another truth I've now learned from her: as long as you can get your characters to resonate with the readers, you can break any rule. Yes, the heroine started out heartsick and a little pathetic. Yes, the story started at a slow point rather than at the moment of change. But none of that matters, because this book is firmly staying on my keeper shelf and I anticipate reading it many more times before it finally falls apart.
So in the end my only real complaint about this book is that it ended. I quite literally turned the last page, saw that the page ended half way down and I wanted to cry out "I'm not ready for this to end! I want more!" Which has got to be the best compliment any reader can give a book.
Now just in case I haven't already made it clear: Read this book!