State of Wonder
“The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr. Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.”
As I mentioned in Choosing a Book, this opening works for me, and here’s why:
- it’s clear–as in not confusing;
- it details a concrete object–the aerogram;
- it moves from the particular–the death of Anders Eckman–out into a “big picture”–the passing of a man;
- the language is interesting and lyrical– “a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world;”
- something is happening–Mr. Fox has come into the lab to tell Marina something;
- it has narrative drive–”the news” and the “how” of the death.
On adding key information in an interesting way:
“It was true that she knew Karen, but only as well as a forty-two-year-old woman with no children knows a forty-three-year-old woman with three, as well as any single woman who works with the husband ever knows the wife who stays at home.”
In addition to NOT just telling the reader Marina was 42 and Karen was 43 along with the other information, again here, Patchett moves from the particular to the bigger picture.
On the big picture:
“Marina had thought that the important line that was crossed was between the dock and the boat, the land and the water. She had thought the water was the line where civilization fell away. But as they glided between two thick walls of breathing vegetation she realized she was in another world entirely, and that she would see civilization drop away again and again before they reached their final destination.”
From the dock and the boat to land and water to drawing lines to civilizations. And, in addition to opening up the story to a bigger world, these sentences are worth reading for their beauty alone–the visual layers they create in our minds.