What I gleaned about the story: Eve Petersen has inherited her mother’s legal practice, and with it, her creepy stalker. Did he have something to do with mom’s death? Will he now have something to do with Eve’s? I suspect we’re going to find out.
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Details: The opening scene is quite short, but it sets up a very interesting character and situation. I still don’t know what’s going on, but the possibilities are tantalizing.
Analysis: “Remember, I was a nurse once. Not that it would be possible to forget that salient fact with my husband’s attorney reminding the judge of it every time he has a chance. Do you suppose the judge remembers that my parents paid for my tuition, even though I was then married to that skunk of a husband, or that I then put him through medical school and essentially made his damned practice for him?”
Even if this wasn’t an authorial intrusion of backstory on page one, it would still have been a hefty mouthful for one person to utter uninterrupted. Especially for a woman who only one paragraph earlier had been gasping for air after holding her breath up two or three flights of stairs.
Analysis: Another half page further and then we get another bowel-freeing push of backed up story history: Eve pretended that she hadn’t heard and focused on her phone. She had last checked her messages on the broad steps of the courthouse at 60 Centre Street where she and Grace had attended a conference concerning Grace’s divorce case, which was moving at glacial speed toward a trial. The first new call was from Hank Jacobs, the lawyer for Grace’s husband, asking her in a tone even more brusque than usual to call him back as soon as possible. The second message caused her to stiffen with dread. It was the now-familiar, artificially clipped voice of an aristocratic Englishman. He had first contacted Eve by accident when he’d called Norma’s office, not knowing that she had died. Norma had never told Eve, but the Gentleman Rapist—as he had been dubbed by the cops—had taunted her for years, apparently because of Norma’s woman’s organization, SOPROW, and the efforts she had made to publicize his crimes and help the police capture him. Now he had Eve’s cell number also. Maria had warned her that it was just a matter of time before that happened.
This single paragraph actually has two distinct info dumps in it, which I’ve marked in different colors. It’s not that I mind being given the history of the characters and their situations, but these asides completely halt the flow of what had been happening in order to throw the spotlight on something only tangentially connected, effectively sabotaging the contexts they intrude into. When the first one in this excerpt begins, we are in Eve’s head as she fumes about Grace’s unkind remark and then checks messages as a silent sort of punishment. But then we get sucked into the back-story about the divorce and the trial, and by the time that sentence is done, I’ve lost the immediacy of that original moment between Eve and Grace.
But then, instead of going back to that moment, we plow on, and now the paragraph has actually become focused on the messages, rather than maintaining its original function as a passive-aggressive punishment for Grace. Then, after a throw-away message from another lawyer, the paragraph takes yet another turn. Only this time it’s about the stalker that Eve inherited from her dead mother, and then we get a final beat about how some other, previously unmentioned, woman predicted all this. That’s five different focuses for one paragraph, and only one of them—the original one about Grace—should ever have had the spotlight.
And this leads me to proposing a possible new rule of thumb. We all know that the right way to reveal backstory is in dribbles, sprinkled smoothly throughout the ongoing events of the story, but how do we know if it’s smooth? I think this example shows that it stops being smooth the moment your revelation hijacks the purpose of the paragraph it occurs in.
Analysis: “Right. She told me you were going with her.” Grace hesitated, suddenly very serious. “Look, I appreciate your helping her, Eve. I know this wasn’t part of the promise you made to Norma, but Susan’s a good person, if a bit flakey. You’ll see. And she’s had a rough life. She lost her parents in an automobile accident when she was thirteen. She, herself, almost died. She has no memory of anything that happened before it. Imagine! No memory of the first 13 years of your life.”
In another book, this occurrence might not have been intrusive enough to flag, but now I’m sensitized to them, so it yanked me out of the story anyway.
Note: It’s a bit frustrating, because after the promise of the opening chapter, I really wanted to find out what was going on in Eve’s world. But so far I know more backstory about her friend and her mother than I do forestory about her. And that doesn’t hold my interest.