Sunday, September 27, 2015

First Pages in Fiction: The Sea Keeper's Daughters

In this continuing series, "Novel Beginnings," I dissect first paragraphs of novels and show how the opening of a book sets the foundation for what's to follow in terms of tone, character and story intent. In this installment, we'll explore  The Sea Keeper's Daughters by Lisa Wingate. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Perhaps denial is the mind's way of protecting the heart from a sucker punch it can't handle. Or maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe denial is the face of overwhelming evidence is a mere byproduct of stubbornness.

Whatever the reason, all I could think standing in the doorway, one hand on the latch and the other trembling on the keys, was, This can't be happening. This can't be how it ends. It's so…quiet. A dream should make noise when it's dying. It deserves to go out in a tragic blaze of glory. There should be a dramatic death scene, a gasping for breath…something.

Denise laid a hand on my shoulder, whispered, "Are you all right?" Her voice faded at the end, cracking into jagged pieces.

"No." A hard, bitter tone sharpened the cutting edge on the word. It wasn't aimed at Denise. She knew that. "Nothing about this is all right. Not one single thing."

"Yeah." Resting against the doorframe, she let her neck go slack until her cheek touched the wood. "I'm not sure if it's better or worse to stand here looking at it, though. For the last time, I mean."

"We put our hearts into this place…" Denial reared its unreasonable head again. I would've called it hope, but if it was hope, it was false and paper-thin kind. The kind that only teases you...

Wingate launches her story with a profound statement about denial. And the paragraphs that follow bring an immediate sense of intimacy. Notice, however, the use of the words "death," "bitter," "hard," and "sharpening." This speaker is not happy and is grappling, but the philosophical nature of the opening sentences reveal the speaker to be wistful and sensitive. The speaker (not sure if it's a man or a woman) is taking a last look at a place that was obviously dear to her/him. Readers don't know what--or where--that place is, but intrigue deepens, especially when Denise offers a gentle touch and then breaks the speaker's reverie to ask, "Are you all right?" Denise's actions and words--and the conversation that ensues--gives the reader a sense that she is a friend and confidante, and she has a stake, along with the speaker, in something that is coming to a close or someplace these two people will have to leave. The speaker's "hard, bitter" response indicates that she is not a willful participant in whatever change is taking place. And thus, this story begins at the end of something.  

If you're familiar with books by Lisa Wingate (this novel is actually the third in her series of Carolina-based stories; read my review of The Prayer Box), you already know she writes multi-generational, dual time-frame novels of domestic fiction, where she often merges two story threads—a present-day story with a story from the past. You'd have to keep reading this novel to see how this opening scene serves to launch the journey of Whitney Monroe, a high-end (yet struggling) restaurant owner in Michigan who comes from a complicated family. When Whitney's elderly, estranged stepfather takes ill, she travels to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to be with him. He lives at the Excelsior, a famed hotel from the Gilded Age, which he also owns. (Whitney will one day inherit the hotel.) While Whitney is in residence, memories from her childhood are evoked, and she also discovers family heirlooms and letters exchanged between her grandmother and a relative Whitney never knew existed. In reading the letters and experiencing incidents involved, Whitney questions her family and heritage, and she is forced to confront issues of race, politics, identity and secrets.

Wingate once again writes an intriguing, multi-layered story where her main character must take a physical journey in order to trek deeper into the recesses of her soul.

Tyndale House Publishers, $19.99 Hardcover, 9781414388274, 448 pp
Publication Date: September 8, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE