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The launching pad...a good book's first sentence

One of the great pleasures of reading  a good novel is the anticipation of settling in, studying  the cover, turning the title page, reading the dedication, the title page, the quote if there is one, and then embarking on the journey.  I've learned to add another step to this process from a friend who facilitates my book club.  Last year, she suggested reading just the first sentence of a novel, then closing the book and lingering over that first sentence for a few days before moving ahead with the read.  I've been doing that for months now.  I can't actually wait a few days before starting in, but I've learned to read that first sentence in the morning and recalling it during the day until my evening reading time.

For example:  here's the first sentence of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter:  "In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together."    Carson McCullers, a writer who really knows how to do sad, evokes such silence,  communication, dependence--maybe love, maybe claustrophobia--and paints a scene of a small town environment in so few words.  I could immediately imagine two people silently walking together through the streets of a 50s small town, known and noticed by the townsfolk,  and after tasting the sentence for a while, I began to feel my appetite whetted for the journey.

Here's another great one, from The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens

"Along the Scariff Road, heading northeast toward home, Farmer Carmichael rides his old red mare Sally through the wreck of Ireland."   Doesn't that phrase "the wreck of Ireland" taste wonderful?   I repeated that at least a dozen times during the day before I settled in to read the book.   There's something about the details:  the name of the road, the farmer, the horse; the direction, all ending in a wreck at the end of the sentence.  The Law of Dreams is a winner of the 2006 Governor General's Awards and one of the selections for London Reads.  It might win the London Reads competition, unless Joseph Boyden's remarkable  Three Day Road scoops it, which it should.  Here's a single sentence from Boyden's book...ponder this:  "We all fight on two fronts, the one facing the enemy, the one facing what we do to the enemy."  Not the first sentence, but what a wallop it packs!

So now I'm turning into a connoisseur of first sentences.  Some are short, and start the novel off with a bang:  "I began teaching again one week after Helen died."  (After Helen, by Paul Cavanagh).  Some are a club sandwich all by themselves:  "The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!"  (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera).  Some set the scene and you know you're in expert hands for a good read:    "For the second time since his arrival in the New World, Lieutenant Marc Edwards was setting out on a winter expedition to Cobourg and, this time, places eastward to Kingston."  (Vital Secrets, by Don Gutteridge

Sometimes, I must admit, I can't stop at the first sentence.  How can you resist this opener?  "When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her."  From Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, I had to read more about the kiss, and then I got involved with the story, and then I couldn't stop, and...well, you know how it is.  By the time I looked up an hour had passed.  I'm on the list for her newest book Run and already look forward to the sweet surrender of a glorious read.

So try it out, if you haven't already, and share some of your stories.   Does it take discipline to stop at the first sentence?  Does it add to your enjoyment of the novel?  Do you have your favourite first sentences?  Do you even do like some people (I hear tell)--read the last sentence first?   I'm always interested in reading experiences!