Is it just me, or does there seem to be a wave of "intersecting lives" novels lately? I'm talking about novels which are structured around characters and place and which move forward episodically, rather than via a driving, suspenseful plot, a genre which is also sometimes called "a novel in stories." Two of the most decorated books of recent years fall into this category: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Other recent entries include A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert, Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, and the forthcoming The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse.
I've always thought of such novels as freshman efforts, a way for a fiction writer to transition from short stories to a novel-length book. This was true of Rebecca Barry's Later, at the Bar, as well as David Schickler's Kissing in Manhattan, for instance, which grew out of the fantastic short story, "The Smoker," original published in the New Yorker.
But of course this genre has a longer, more distinguished pedigree. Sherwood Anderson used it to spectacular effect in Winesburg, Ohio, and one could argue that Virginia Woolf's The Hours falls into this category. A more recent classic is The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien.
Personally, I tend to prefer plot-driven novels and am often left unsatisfied with books that introduce me to a bunch of people and move them around a town without ever pushing them up and over a narrative arc. What do you think? Which "intersecting lives" novels work for you and why?
-- Amy Reading
True to her last name, Amy Reading makes a living reading, freelance editing, and writing. She has recently completed a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University and is working on a book that grows out of her dissertation, a history of American con artistry.