Despite their huge differences, the characters spend a lot of time together. Check them out:
Maureen is a conservative middle-aged woman who has had intercourse once in her life—with a fiancé who then left her—and that act produced Matty, a brain-damaged son who even as an adult cannot speak or interact with her in any way. Maureen has no life; all of her time is spent caring for her son.
And once you have a child like Matty you can’t help but feel, That’s it! That’s all my bad luck, a whole lifetime’s worth, in one bundle. But I’m not sure luck works like that. Matty wouldn’t stop me from getting breast cancer, or from being mugged. You’d think he should, but he can’t. In a way, I’m glad I never had another child, a normal one. I’d have needed more guarantees from God than He could have provided.
Martin was an aging morning TV host when he went to jail for sleeping with a fifteen-year-old, imploding both marriage and career. He now has a part-time gig on a minor cable channel.
Not once have I been the victim of misrepresentation or distortion. If you think about it, that was one of the most humiliating aspects of the last few years. The papers have been full of s**t about me, and every word of the s**t was true.
Jess is the young, drug-addled, emotionally volatile daughter of an education minister who coddles her because his other daughter went missing years ago. Her useless boyfriend just broke up with her.
You should try to read the stuff by people who have killed themselves! We started with Virginia Woolf, and I only read like two pages of this book about a lighthouse, but I read enough to know why she killed herself: she couldn’t make herself understood. You only have to read one sentence to see that. I sort of identify with her a bit, because I suffer from that sometimes, but her mistake was to go public with it.
JJ is the only American. He came to England to play guitar in a band with his best friend, his beloved girlfriend in tow. When his friend broke up the band he lost his friend, the girl, and the music that was his passion. He now delivers pizzas, and is embarrassed that he doesn’t have as good a reason as the others to kill himself.
“I got like this brain thing. It’s called CCR.” Which, of course, is Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of my all-time favorite bands, and a big inspiration to me. I didn’t think any of them looked like big Creedence fans. Jess was too young, I really didn’t need to worry about Maureen, and Martin was the kind of guy who’d only have smelled a rat if I’d told him I was dying of incurable ABBA.
Hornby uses their varying voices and perspectives in an often laugh-out-loud counterpoint, all while deepening our sense of what it is that might make someone give up living, and why, and how even a stranger who has little in common with you might make a difference.
This is not a book you will read for its riveting plot. But if you’d like to study character and voice and the way varying points of view can give a prismatic view of a premise—and how each character reveals himself by the way he views the others—this is a quick, fun read that will do the trick.
Can you think of other books where multiple characters are used less to drive plot but more to comment upon a shared event, or one another? Have you ever tried this technique?
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right." Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.