What Novels Make You Feel Uneasy on the First Page?

On page 126 of If on a winter’s night a traveler a character obsessed with reading everything she can get her hands on makes this statement:

The novels I prefer are those that make you feel uneasy from the very first page.

What kind of novels are those? I have to say that the experience of being grabbed with both arms and yanked headfirst into a story hasn’t happened to me very often. Frankly, I think the statement is about as cliche and bogus as those college students who say they “fell in love with the campus” on first sight. Most of my favorite novels don’t have shocking openers, nor should they have to. A great book should feel confident enough to rely on good storytelling instead of gimmicky hooks to get you past the first page.

Do you have a favorite first line that grabbed you right away? Let me know your favorite if you do. I’d say that, in the past year,  the only book that caught my attention with its very first line was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando:

He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.

That gets you thinking, doesn’t it? What’s going on there? Okay, but what about the “greatest books of all time?” The ones that everyone thinks we should be reading – do they have killer opening lines? As a fun experiment, below I’ve paired the five opening lines from the most popular books on my master list (the ten books most often cited by the twenty-four lists) with the opening lines from the top five selling books of the last fifteen years, as according to USA Today. Scratch that, the USA Today list is mostly Harry Potter and after that , mostly self-help books. Let’s make it the top five opening lines from five different novelists for both lists.

What do you think?

Kevin’s Master List

1. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

2. Don Quixote de La Mancha

Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.

3. Heart of Darkness

The NELLIE, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest.

4. The Great Gatsby

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

USA Today’s Most Popular Novels of the Last 15 Years

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

2. The Da Vinci Code

Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

3. Tuesdays with Morrie

The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves.

4. The Kite Runner

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid, overcast day in the winter of 1975

5.  To Kill a Mockingbird

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow

First off, what I find interesting is that none of the Master List books begin in media res, unless you count Heart of Darkness. Three of them begin very simply… at the beginning. Mark Twain, meanwhile, uses the opening line of Huckleberry to note that it is a sequel.

Compare that to the USA list (I love that Mockingbird makes it, by the way). Da Vinci Code definitely fits the bill of in media res. Not so much the others though. What distinguishes the “popular” books opening lines are that they beg questions that form the nut of the entire narrative to follow: Why are the Dursleys so adamant about their normality? Why is that the last class of your professor’s life? What happened on that “frigid, overcast day?” How did Jem break that arm? There is much less of that in the Master List’s openers.

All things considered, I don’t think the woman in If on a winter’s night a traveler would be completely sucked in by any of those openers. But how about these from the Master?:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

Or one of my favorites:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

One Response to “What Novels Make You Feel Uneasy on the First Page?”
  1. Kathy says:

    I love this post–because opening lines are important to me. You’re right–we should be patient, the storytelling should stand alone–but some of us are impatient and want to get hooked right from the start. Even People Magazine (yes I confess) includes opening lines in their reviews now. I have read 6, almost 7 of the books you quoted. I wish I had the patience to wait, but I want a book that I can’t wait to get to at night, or that I can sneak off to during the day.

    Is there hope for those of us who don’t read quickly, and voraciously? But still love to read a great book? Can I still be someone who loves to read good books, but doesn’t want to “work too hard!?” Can you help me by identifying the great classics that are also page-turners–full of suspense, love stories, crime dramas, family sagas, autobiographies and such but are so well written that you actually stop and reread the sentence, just to savor the beauty of the words?

    So, what book is that last opening line from? (Mary, forgive my dangling preposition)

    This may be my one and only comment, depending on how much abuse I get for it. 🙂

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