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Parallel Novels

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A parallel novel owes its basic structure to a work by a different author. It can borrow a character and fill in his story, mirror an “old” plot or blend the characters of one book with those of another. For instance….

Pap is a minor character in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He appears in the early chapters to claim Huck’s money and then in a harrowing incident provides Huck with a good reason to run away. Though his role is small, he is so well drawn that he is easily one of the most hateful characters in American literature.

Using the few details Twain has provided, Jon Clinch fills in Pap’s story in Finn, his debut novel. It is a chilling story that opens with a body floating down the Mississippi, a situation that will have a profound effect on Pap, who is one of the most disreputable men in the village.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, tells about a year in the life of the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Their father has gone off to fight in the Civil War leaving the girls and their mother to struggle at home. Based on Miss Alcott’s experiences with her own family, the book became an instant success when it was published in 1868.

Decades later Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for March, her novel that looks at the Civil War from Mr. March’s point of view. Initially an idealistic minister, he learns first-hand that there are no winners in war and that both sides are capable of great cruelty.

Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, tells us very little about Captain Ahab’s personal life—only that the orphaned captain began whaling at eighteen, has worked at his trade for forty years and has a young wife and son. Instead Ishmael tells us about his adventures at sea caused by Ahab’s quest for Moby Dick, the great whale that bit off his leg and destroyed his ship years earlier. When it was published in 1851, the novel was not particularly well received, but has since become one of America’s most celebrated works.

Ahab’s Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel which appeared in 1999, features Una Spenser, a woman who is every bit as exciting and adventurous as her famous husband. At twelve, she leaves home; at sixteen, she goes to sea; soon afterwards she is shipwrecked and survives; then she marries, but only for a time because as she says in the novel’s opening, “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Their days together occur before his encounter with Moby Dick and show a very different side of his personality.

Beowulf, considered by many to be the first important literary work in English, was written by an unknown Anglo- Saxon poet centuries ago. In this famous tale which influenced Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Hrothgar, the king of Denmark, has built a large hall where he entertains his warriors. Grendel is bothered by their noise and terrorizes them. His behavior motivates Beowulf to challenge him, setting off a chain of retribution and violence.

Grendel, written by John Gardner and published in 1971, retells this story from Grendel’s point of view with a modern twist. As he observes the humans around him, Grendel struggles to determine who he is and how he should behave.

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s novel about the American Civil War, features an unusual couple—Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Both are headstrong survivors determined to have their way, making their love story one of the most interesting in American fiction.

The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and remains one of the most popular novels ever written. It once sold more than fifty thousand copies in a single day, it is on Time’s list of the 100 best English language novels from 1923-2005, and to date it has sold more than thirty million copies. The book was so popular fans clamored for a sequel, but the author, who spent ten years writing her only novel, steadfastly refused. She died in 1949.

Years later Margaret Mitchell’s estate authorized the publication of two sequels: Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, which was published in 1991, and Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig, published in 2007. Scarlett repeats much of the story told in the original though in the view of most critics not nearly so well, whereas Rhett Butler’s People begins before Rhett meets Scarlett and includes his later years.

Another parallel novel, The Wind Done Gone, is told from the slaves’ point of view. The author’s estate challenged its publication, but the courts ruled it a parody and protected by the First Amendment.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet was written more than four centuries ago and continues to be one of his most popular plays. As the tragedy opens, Prince Hamlet learns from his father’s ghost that King Hamlet was killed by his brother Claudius who is now married to his widow, Queen Gertrude. The ghost begs Prince Hamlet to avenge his father’s death, and Hamlet agrees. While he is deciding the best course to take, Hamlet feigns madness, causing his friends and family to wonder at his behavior. Once Hamlet is convinced of his uncle’s guilt, he confronts his mother and events spiral out of control.

Many readers of Hamlet have wondered about the relationship between Prince Hamlet’s mother and uncle. How did it begin? More important, when did it begin? In his novel Gertrude and Claudius, a prequel to Hamlet published in 2000, John Updike suggests some answers. He begins with the marriage of the sixteen-year-old Gertrude to the warrior Hamlet and ends with her marriage to his brother, the starting point of Shakespeare’s play. In between are the events leading to the death of the king.

A more modern parallel exists in David Wroblewski’s debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Published in 2008, it quickly became a New York Times Best Seller and an Oprah Book Club selection. Edgar, who cannot hear or speak, is the son and grandson of dog breeders. An only child, he is especially close to his father, Gar, who dies mysteriously after his brother, Claude, has visited the family farm in Wisconsin. Shortly after Gar’s death, Edgar’s mother and Claude appear to be exceptionally close. Edgar, after confirming his suspicions, runs away with three of his dogs. When he returns from the wilderness, Edgar, his mother and uncle confront the family issues at the heart of this novel.

Howards End, E.M. Forster’s first major success, appeared in 1910. It is the story of three disparate families whose lives intersect and are changed forever. The Wilcoxes are wealthy materialists concerned with business and finance; the Schlegels are refined idealists, lovers of art and culture; and the Basts are a lower class family whose life is a dreary struggle. Their different values and the effect they have on one another become apparent as the story progresses.

On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s award winning novel, mirrors Howards End in many ways. Written almost a century later, it also features dissimilar families brought together by circumstance. The parallels are intended. As she says in her acknowledgements,

...this is a novel inspired by a love of E. M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other. This time I wanted to repay the debt with hommage.

Not much is told about the mad woman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which appeared in 1847, but Jean Rhys found her so intriguing that she recounted her story in Wide Sargasso Sea. Published in 1966, the novel won the W. H. Smith Literary Award a year later, and is on Time’s list of the 100 best English language novels published since 1923. In this novel Antoinette Cosway, known as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, is a spirited, independent woman capable of presenting her side of the story which is barely hinted at in Bronte’s work. In important ways she resembles Jane, whose love story is among the most popular in English literature.

Set in Iowa in the 1980s, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres tells the story of Larry Cook, a farmer who has decided to give his thousand acres to his three daughters. One of them is not interested. He becomes angry, disinherits her and inadvertently creates havoc throughout the family. Told through the eyes of his oldest daughter, Ginny, the novel provides insight into the dynamics of the family and reveals the deep hurts that lie just below the surface. In 1992, the novel won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Shakespeare’s King Lear, the source of Smiley’s novel, tells a similar story. A father, in this case a king, wants to leave his realm to the daughter who loves him best, an idea that would be funny—if it weren’t so sad. Once he makes his decision, he realizes his mistake but can do nothing to avert the tragedy that follows. King Lear is considered to be one of William Shakespeare’s greatest works and is among his most popular.

In the opening scene of Mrs. Dalloway, the heroine of Virginia Woolf’s famous novel is getting ready for a party to be held later in the day. As she does so, she thinks about the past, the choices she has made, her regrets and her fears for the future. The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s tribute to Ms. Woolf, begins in the same way. This intricate parallel novel features three women: Virginia Woolf, who is writing Mrs. Dalloway in 1925; Mrs. Brown, who is reading it and planning a birthday party for her husband in 1949; and Clarissa Vaughan, who is planning a party for a friend in the late 1990s. In its setting, plot and style The Hours mirrors Virginia Woolf’s best known work while paying tribute to her extraordinary talent. The Hours won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, takes place in 1925 in West Egg, a fictitious town on Long Island. Jay Gatsby has recently moved there in hopes of attracting Daisy Buchanan, his first love, who has married someone else. Eventually Gatsby succeeds—to a point. He has acquired the money, the mansion, the Rolls Royce—all the basic accoutrements he needs to impress Daisy—so that together they may rewrite the past. There is just one problem—the great divide between West Egg and East Egg, the town where Daisy lives.

Chris Bohjalian, author of eleven novels and an avid Fitzgerald fan, alludes to The Great Gatsby often in The Double Bind, which he completed in 2007.

I love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. No one wrote more beautifully, and no one understood the conflicts between social class and the human heart better than him. ~ Chris Bohjalian

Bohjalian’s literary mystery features a young girl who is brutally assaulted in the opening chapter. A few years later while working in a homeless shelter, she is given a box of photographs taken by a homeless man who has recently died. She wants to find out more about him and the photos. During her investigation we learn that she has grown up in West Egg, not far from Gatsby’s mansion; her mother and aunt know Daisy’s daughter; she herself is familiar with the gossip surrounding the Gatsby/Buchanan love triangle; and she suspects there are interesting connections between the photographer and the Buchanans.

In 1956 Grace Metalious created a sensation with the publication of her first novel, Peyton Place. Within ten days it sold 60,000 copies and by 1965 it had replaced Gone with the Wind as the number one best seller of the 20th century.

Considered shocking at the time, the novel exposes the hypocrisy of small town life where surface appearances belie the truth. Topics that had long been taboo—adultery, rape, incest, abortion—are an important part of the plot, and some of the major incidents are based on real life events and people.

Looking for Peyton Place, one of Barbara Delinsky’s recent novels, also deals with uncovering secrets. This time Annie Barnes, a successful novelist, is returning home to research the cause of her mother’s death. Her former neighbors believe that their town was used as the basis for Peyton Place, and they worry that like her idol, Grace Metalious, Annie will include them in her next novel.