Let’s take a look at our next novel from The Bestseller Code 100 challenge list, Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good by Jan Karon, from a writer’s perspective
This post does not contain spoilers.
Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good by Jan Karon (2014)
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Summary: Father Tim Kavanagh has returned to Mitford, North Carolina with his wife Cynthia. He’s retired, but feels his life is missing something. He can’t seem to figure out what he wants to do about it.
This is the twelfth novel in the Mitford series, which features the multiple generations of the Kavanagh family. The fourteenth novel in the series came out in September, 2017.
Because both Karen (see her review) and I failed to finish reading this novel, it might be informative to try to figure out why.
Ever been to a gathering where everyone else had known each other for a long time, such as the first time you met with all your in-laws? Or go to the company softball game when you’ve just been hired and they’ve been playing together for years? People who know each other well, and have history together, often speak in shorthand or code. You feel left out because you have no idea what they are talking about.
Because this is the twelfth novel in the series, the characters are old friends to people who started the series at book one. The author apparently expects new readers to understand the characters the same way as old fans and makes little effort to introduce us. By jumping in at book twelve for this challenge, we are left standing on the outside.
Genre and Pacing
Although writers try to reach a general audience, realistically they often must gear their writing to the expectations of a subset of readers who prefer their genre. For example, cozy mystery writers avoid a lot of violence. Their books focus on restoring order to a community that is basically good. The pacing is moderate with a good distance between conflicts or incidents. On the other hand, thriller writers pile on the violence and often the central question is whether the villain is going to get away with the mayhem. The pacing is fast and distance between conflicts is short.
As Christian Fiction, Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good is supposed to have a gentle touch with no violence and a relatively slow pace. As a person who reads mysteries and thrillers for fun, I like my novels to feel like I’m in a race car plunging down a hill. This novel felt like I was on a very rickety bicycle that meandered a lot. I didn’t like it. It is a personal preference, however, and many people probably find the slow pace refreshing.
Little Mysteries for Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good
A good novelist provides little mysteries in the story. Those are questions put into a reader’s mind to keep them turning pages. To be effective, the answers should be revealed within a few pages, hence “little” mysteries.
Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good starts out with the question whether Father Kavanagh will be able to fit into his tux. When he can’t, he and his wife (mainly his wife) go in search of an alternative. The last mention of their search is around page 19 or 20, then that thread pretty much disappears. We never learn what happens until an oblique mention on page 63:
‘There we were, two of three misfits who didn’t show up as penguins…’
So, about 40 pages later we learn that apparently he didn’t wear a tux. If you had forgotten the question, the answer was so subtle you would have missed it. If you had remembered the question, it was a long time to ponder such a trivial mystery that apparently had no bearing on the plot except to send the main characters to visit a friend. The author promised a reward, but never fulfilled it.
In fact, the novel is way too slow in providing the solutions to the little mysteries throughout. Another example: On page 19 we learn that Irene is missing and her front door was left open. That sounds alarming. Has something bad happened to her? On page 38, they check again. Irene still isn’t home, but this time the police show up. When do we find out what happened to Irene? Not until page 90, where we learn she was in Georgia with her new grandson. She was never in danger. The reader is left wondering why such good friends, who knew so many other details of her life and felt comfortable rummaging through her house, didn’t know she was expecting a new grandson.
Again and again the author has failed in her promises to the reader by either holding out too long or hiding the answers to the little mysteries, if she gives them at all (see quote in Karen’s review). When they arrive, the answers are often anticlimactic or serve no purpose. It was enlightening to me as a writer to realize how frustrating that was. I will definitely make a big effort to make sure any little mysteries I include will fulfill their promises to my readers in a timely way.
The setting is the fictional small community of Milford, North Carolina. Although there was a map in the front, I never got a strong impression of place. In contrast, Alice Sebold, for example, never names the setting in Lovely Bones, and yet it seemed much clearer and much more concrete. Perhaps the setting has been described in detail in some of the earlier novels in the series? Again, jumping in at novel twelve was frustrating.
In summary, some of the issues we had with the book were due to it being the twelfth in a series and others were issues with the author’s choices about plotting and storytelling. Perhaps the inability to connect with the characters and the settings would not have been a problem if we had read the novels in the order intended. Given the popularity of the books, that is likely the case.
Have you read Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good by Jan Karon? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
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What are we reading next?
If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.
The next book is number 57. Fifty Shades of Gray by E. L. James (2011) – Discussion begins June 25, 2018