Apologies in advance for the fact that this post will leave you with 'O Holy Night' stuck in your head all day. It's Ann-Marie MacDonald's fault.
She wrote a book called Fall On Your Knees that I am mad about. I read it on the recommendation of a Canadian friend a few years ago and I re-read it last week. I can't talk about it too much, because I've recommended it to someone who may stop by this blog and I don't want to wreck the ending. But it definitely merits a read if you're interested in characterisation.
The setting - Cape Breton island in the late 1800s to mid 1900s - is challenging, as I imagine MacDonald had a tough time finding resources to work from (social history is a pain in the face to find out about. No one tells you where people went on dates, or when it became usual to dye your hair). It is the characters, though, that really make it sing.
It's hard to define who the main characters even are in this book, as it centres around three generations of a family and they all get a turn. James, the patriarch, is pretty unlikeable - snotty, self-absorbed, obsessive. Then he gets worse. Two of his daughters, Mercedes and Frances, share main character and viewpoint character duties for most of the book, and I found them both interestingly drawn. Mercedes is deeply religious and lives only to help her family.
I hate her.
Frances, by contrast, is selfish, difficult, slutty (not a word I like to use because it feels very anti-women, but Frances just totally is), troublesome, wild, abusive and mad.
I liked her better.
And I feel sure I had exactly the responses that MacDonald wanted me to have. She didn't mess up the good and bad characters. Everyone in the family loves Frances too. In spite of, well, Frances.
Sometimes, you read a book and you like the wrong character, and you know it's the wrong character. There is a book out there that everyone except me claims is one of the best ever written, and the only person in it that I liked was a very minor character who shows up for two pages. That meant the book wasn't working for me. As William Goldman might say, if you're rooting the butler, then everything is very far from being wonderful.
Not the case with MacDonald. She skilfully creates a self-sacrificing girl with no pleasures in life beyond her family, her crush on Rudolph Valentino, her one friend, her faith. And she makes her gradually less and less likeable until - no, I won't spoil it ;)
And Frances? When I started to type that I liked her, I imagined commenters popping up to say 'But she. . .' 'And she. . .' 'Are you forgetting the time when she. . . ' And I'm not. She did a lot of things that would instantly make any other character unsympathetic for me. Somehow, though, for reasons I don't fully understand (although I'd bloody well better try, if I'm to make a go of this writing lark), I liked her.
I won't even start on what MacDonald does to the elder sister, Kathleen.
Can't recommend this one enough. I can definitely imagine someone hating it, though, because there are very few entirely sympathetic characters (I think only one, and even so I can see why someone wouldn't like her), so don't blame me if you read it and you do. There are some very interesting techniques at play here though, and it's a real 'writers' read'. But it's also very good.