For me, one of the biggest (and toughest) decisions when setting out to write a new book is figuring out whose story I’m writing, and who is best placed to tell it. I’ve made false starts on more than one occasion. In The Road to Newgate I started out with only one first person narrator and ended up with three. I’ve read books on the topic (for example The Art of Perspective by Christopher Castellani) and I’m always interested as a reader to see what other writers do and consider how those choices impact on the way characters and plot develop.
Which brings me to Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. Here’s a little bit of the blurb:
One summer morning, twelve-year-old Edward Adler, his beloved older brother, his parents, and 183 other passengers board a flight in Newark headed for Los Angeles. Among them are a Wall Street wunderkind, a young woman coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, an injured veteran returning from Afghanistan, a business tycoon, and a free-spirited woman running away from her controlling husband. Halfway across the country, the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor.
The novel tells two stories really. At the forefront is what happens to Edward afterwards. He leaves hospital, moves in with his aunt and uncle, and tries to cope with life and school now that he is ‘the boy who lived’, albeit without the joys of Hogwarts, Butterbeer and Chocolate Frogs. He does have his own Hermione though, a new best friend called Shay.
The other story line keeps the reader on the plane – from boarding to the crash – and its hard to read at points because here we are getting to know the hopes and dreams of individuals who we know from the very outset are going to die. And yet it’s not a gloomy book. Sad, poignant, funny and even hopeful – definitely not gloomy.
I didn’t actually do a head-count of how many different character points of view, Napolitano uses in the book, but its certainly a crowd. There’s those mentioned in the blurb above and others too. She sets up it from the get-go. By page five we have been introduced to – and been in the heads of – six characters: Edward, his brother, and his parents Jane and Bruce, a grumpy disabled man called Crispin Cox objecting to having his wheelchair tested for explosives, and a young woman, Linda Stollen, who has an as yet unused pregnancy test kit in her pocket. Another three pages in and now there’s a Filipino woman with bells on her skirt, Benjamin Stillman, a black soldier on his way to see his grandmother, an attractive air stewardess and Wall Street ‘type’ called Mark Lassio.
So what’s the key to carrying this feat off? As a reader it works for me because the narrative form is established right from the start. This isn’t a case of a writer having a primary main character and then ‘head-hopping’ into a different character without warning, just because it suits them to do so. That can be a real weakness in a story, breaking the bond of confidence that the reader has with the author. Not so here. With Ann Napolitano there’s no question that the reader can trust her. By page eight the reader/writer contract has been established. Shortly thereafter, her wider structure is clear as she alternates chapters between Edward’s post-crash life and the hours of the flight, but in both cases the narrative time-line moves forward with each point of view (even with internal back stories) firmly bolting on, one to the other, in a linear fashion. It’s really very well done!
Writing like this is not easy. Many of the interviews I’ve read with Napolitano focus, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the inspiration for the story, Edward’s character and life after trauma, but I did find some interesting questions on her process. For anyone who reads the book (and really it is super gripping, beautifully written, and moving) it’s worth hearing this from its author:
“Dear Edward took eight years to finish. I spent the first year taking notes and doing research (I don’t let myself write scenes or even pretty sentences during that period) and then I spend years writing and re-writing the first half of the book. In this novel, the plane sections came fairly easily, but I re-wrote Edward’s storyline countless times.”
Read more about Ann Napolitano and Dear Edward here:
Check out Dear Edward on Amazon here