One of the rewards of reading fiction is coming upon a passage that makes you pause because it so truly illuminates something you’ve experienced or felt yourself. It happened to me while reading my book club’s recent selection, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.
To set the scene, pretending that his wife, Rachel, is dead, Marty sits with Ellie in a jazz club.
Excerpt: He takes a big sip of his Tom Collins to wash away the aftertaste of deceit. He thinks about the European river cruise in the spring, the way Rachel will lay out the brochures and ship menus across the perfectly made bed. They will eat oysters and truffles and make love once or twice, floating by the peat fields of old Europe, sunken down into its ancient rivers. She will read novels in bed and fall asleep with the light on. The predictability of it is both heartening and its own kind of ruin.
The Take-away: This paragraph begins with so much promise, and the last sentence, “The predictability of it is both heartening and its own kind of ruin,” perfectly captures Marty’s ambivalence. I know that feeling. Coming upon it expressed so well made me pause. Unfortunately the paragraph doesn’t end with that sentence. The author adds words that suck the power from the sentiment: He looks up at the stage where the trumpeter is on the outer edge of his solo, rising onto the balls of his feet to launch his big, buttery tone. “That kid’s not bad,” he says. We’re back to the present moment in the jazz club. And the paragraph peters out with an unnecessary dialogue tag.
Paragraph breaks exist for a reason, as I pointed out in a previous blog post “Domesticating the Paragraph.” My guess is that Smith, intent on developing a pivotal scene with Marty and Ellie, didn’t recognize the potency of the sentence in question. It happens.
Your thoughts? Leave a comment.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.