Writers Readers is a series which reminds writers about one of the most important sources of writing education – other writers’ books. Every edition of Writers Readers brings you books I loved (or hated), with reviews you can actually learn from, and tips about how to become the writer you want to be, through reading.
Today’s edition of Writers Readers will talk about Secret Keeping for Beginners by Maggie Alderson. I will give you a bit of an overview of the book, a quick review, and then I will use it as an example to show what advantages and disadvantages having multiple storylines in one novel can have.
Maggie Alderson a journalist-turned-novelist (though she still writes articles and columns, so not sure quite how ‘turned’ she is), and is actually one of my favourite authors. To be honest, I have a bit of an emotional relationship with her books. As you may or may not know, English is not my first language. I’ve been learning it for close to 18 years now, but it wasn’t until 10 years ago that I actually started reading full-length novels in English. The first one I read was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (to this day my least favourite part of the Harry Potter saga), but soon after that came Maggie. Choosing her books wasn’t a particularly conscious decision on my part – her books were simply available in the local bookstore. And I’m really glad they were. Since then, I’ve read 6 of her novels, starting with Handbags and Gladrags (I’m still not quite sure what ‘gladrags’ are). Some I loved more than others (Mad About the Boy will probably always be my favourite), but in general, there’s always a big soft spot in my heart for Maggie’s writing.
The star of this post, however, is Secret Keeping for Beginners, which, sadly, is not yet available in the UK. It joined my bookshelf thanks to Maggie herself. After I published this post, Maggie contacted me, very kindly offering to send me one of her most recent books. I have to say, I was super happy when I heard from her. It’s sort of a reader’s dream, getting a signed copy of a book from an author you love.
The book is about three sisters (Rachel, Tessa and Natasha), their mum, Joy, and Simon, Rachel’s boss. The sisters differ from each other in both character and lifestyle. Tessa is a talented artist, a mother of three and a loving wife, who lives in her own world. Rachel is a down-to-earth PR professional, a single mum of two, while Natasha is a glamorous world-class make up artist who travels the world for amazing photo shoots and fashion shows. And, of course, as per the title, each one of them has a secret…
Here’s a little bonus. Maggie made a video about the places where she set her book. She also allows us a sneak peek at her moodboard for the book.
I have to start by saying that I really enjoyed reading Secret Keeping for Beginners. As every one of Maggie’s books, it’s funny, engaging and made me want to find out what will happen to the characters next. I think that’s one of the most important qualities a book can have – if you can’t make your readers care for your characters, you went wrong somewhere. Maggie went exactly right. Each of her characters has a personality, they’re not paper people, and I felt actual emotions about them – liked some more than others, and got frustrated when they did something I thought was silly. While I was reading it, Secret Keeping for Beginners was with me everywhere I went, which is a big compliment, as it’s 460 pages long and I tend to barely have space for a kindle in my handbag. I MADE space for Maggie.
The story unfolds gradually, keeping you wanting to finally learn what’s going to happen, what is this person going to do, and how is that other one going to react. I think I liked Natasha the most from all the sisters, possibly because I share her love of make up, or maybe because she was the youngest, I also had a soft spot for Simon. I feel that Simon’s story came a bit too late, because I just couldn’t wait to learn what his secret was. Or maybe that was how it was meant to be, to get me excited.
Overall, Secret Keeping for Beginners is a lovely read, one that I will definitely come back to one day.
But I don’t like writing reviews. I should do – I’m a writer writing about writing and books (writing inception), but I find them boring. So, as I’ve already mentioned this episode of Writers Readers is going to focus on how Maggie used multiple main characters (and with that, multiple storylines) in her book, as opposed to one main character and a number of supporting ones, as is the case in, for example, Harry Potter, or Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitair series.
This is actually the only one of Maggie’s books of the six I’ve read that has more than one main character, which I found quite interesting, expecting the usual formula of one strong female lead. Personally, I really like books with multiple characters, my own book has two main ones as well (which goes to show quite how much I like this format). In Secret Keeping for Beginners we have 5 intertwined storylines (Rachel, Tessa, Natasha, Simon and Joy), but I’d say the three sisters are the proper main characters, and Simon and Joy sort of ‘supporting’ mains.
So, using Secret Keeping for Beginners as example, let’s talk about advantages and disadvantages of having multiple storylines in one novel.
Let’s start with advantages
Having numerous characters the way Maggie did it (and the way I’m doing it), with their stories intertwined allows for presenting various sides of the same story. When we have a book with one main character, we, as readers, adopt this character’s point of view and believe their version of the story. But is there ever really just one side of a story? In Secret Keeping for Beginners, the three sisters fall out with each other at one point. In a single-character book you’d see the argument through the point of view of that character, and see the other ones through this lens. Here, we had FOUR versions of the story (from Rachel, Tessa, Natasha and Joy), and different perspectives on why the situation was the way it was, and why they even fell out in the first place. Of course, you can still side with one of them (I totally did), but it adds depth to the story and makes you understand the characters better.
Numerous storylines, even if they’re intertwined, also give you a bit of a ‘books within a book’ feeling – you’re not just cheering for one character, you’re cheering for many, and each of them has something happening to them and, in Secret Keeping for Beginners, each of them has their own secret that you can’t wait to find out about. So even though you’re reading just one book, you’re discovering multiple stories. From a writer’s perspective, I like the fact that I can tell two stories at once, instead of writing two separate books about each of my characters, especially as they support each other and one story helps the other advance, and the other way round.
As there are multiple main characters, we get to know those characters well. Reading Secret Keeping for Beginners, I felt I got to know Natasha, Tessa and Rachel really well, and got a good glimpse into Simon and Joy. I knew about their feelings, I saw the events of the book from the point of view of each of them. And, most importantly, I knew things about them that other characters in the book didn’t know. Now, sticking with Harry Potter as a counterexample, since I’ve started with it already (and most of you have probably read it), how much do we actually know about Ron and Hermione? Only what Harry knows, because the story is told from his perspective, and Harry is just a normal human, he is not omniscient. To be honest, I would have liked to sometimes know what Hermione was thinking, but that’s not how J.K. Rowling wanted it to be. As a result, the only character I really know in depth, inside and out, is Harry. If Harry Potter was written with the whole trio as main characters, we would definitely have known Ron and Hermione much better, but it would also be a completely different story (and, most likely, a few times longer).
The fact that the books is skipping between various characters has one more advantage – a sense of suspense. Chick flicks aren’t the most suspenseful of books, it’s a quality usually reserved for thrillers and the like. How to make a book impossible to put down is something that a chick flick author is likely to be asking themselves while writing or planning their novel. Personally, I find (well written) multiple main character books to be harder to put down than ones with just one main character, even if they’re equally well written. Why? Suspense. While Maggie was telling me what Natasha had been up to, I was curious about what Tessa was doing. When she moved to Tessa, I really needed to know what’s going on with Rachel. And so on, and so forth. Maggie kept me attached to her book because I was never quite satisfied – I wanted more of each character, so I kept on reading. Everyone is happy – the reader has a book that’s hard to put down, and a writer actually has their book read. (Of course, introducing multiple characters won’t compensate for bad writing.)
As with anything, there are disadvantages to having multiple storylines in one book
If you have more than two characters you’re switching between, it’s very likely that some characters will get less attention. In Secret Keeping for Beginners, I would definitely have liked to have more of Simon, who was an interesting, multi-layered, but also funny character, but he didn’t get much ‘page space’ (what’s the book equivalent of screen time?’ ) until quite late in the book. I’d have also liked more of Natasha, probably because I liked her the most of the three sisters. And even with fewer characters, one character’s storyline might become more prominent. It’s something I noticed in my own novel, which only has two main characters – one of them had a much more robust, engaging storyline, something I am now trying to fix.
This leads directly to another problem a book with multiple storylines can stumble upon, which is the fact that some stories could go more in depth. Maggie’s book has over 460 pages, which is quite a lot, but given that within it there are five different stories, it’s impossible to explore them in as much depth as could be done if it was a book about just one of the sisters. On the other hand, some stories don’t require that much page space, and apart from Joy and Simon, I think all characters got enough of it to have their story done justice to. One gripe I had was Joy’s secret being introduced at the very beginning, then nearly abandoned throughout the course of the book, only to be rushed to conclusion in the last few pages. I felt that Joy deserved more attention.
When a reader is faced with so many different characters, they’re also bound to like some of them more than others, however, it’s also something that might happen to the author. As I’ve already mentioned, my favourite characters in Secret Keeping for Beginners were Simon and Natasha, yet I felt that Rachel got the most attention. My guess is that Maggie liked Rachel the most of her characters, or felt the closest to her, thus giving her more attention. Such uneven attention can lead to slightly annoying your readers, who might want to get more of their favourite character, but instead get more of the one they’re not so hot for (Rachel annoyed the hell out of me…).
All in all, I really like books having multiple characters, both as a reader and writer, if they are done right. Did Maggie get it right? Absolutely and totally. She kept me attached to her novel from first until the last page, and I will definitely read it again (as I have all her other books before).
Most importantly, though, do I recommend Secret Keeping for Beginners? I absolutely, totally do, if only you can get your hands on it. And, once again, big thanks to Maggie for sending me her book.