Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…
From the first time I read Rebecca, these words have been pure magic to me. Though the people around her never even call her by name, this narrator ushers the reader into an unforgettable story. The brooding atmosphere, the slow revelation of horrible secrets, the gradual unveiling of layers of character – none of this would have been there were it not for this particular narrator. Readers get to know Maxim de Winter, Mrs. Danvers and the others through her eyes and it’s this aspect of the novel that really makes it work.
When the topic comes up, readers often comment that they prefer third-person narration. Readers say that they want to experience a romance knowing what both the hero and heroine are thinking. Certainly, for some stories this type of narration works best. However, I just do not get the reluctance to read first-person narration. I find it fascinating to see a story world through someone else’s eyes, and first-person narration lets me do that. In a way, the author who employs a first-person narrator takes a big risk. Much of the book will rest on the narrator’s shoulders, so if the narrator’s voice is insufferable, the story will be very hard to enjoy. However, if the author writes a good voice for the narrator, the story could also end up being unforgettable in a way that a third-person narrative cannot deliver. Just try to imagine Rebecca without that meek voice quietly telling her chilling tale and letting us see everything as she learns it.
A first-person narrator can serve a number of purposes. An engaging voice can befriend the reader and make the book feel as if the narrator is a good friend pulling up a chair and talking to me about her life. This works especially well in chick lit. There’s a certain immediacy to this style of narrative and when I read books like Bridget Jones’ Diary, Separation Anxiety, or many others I’ve enjoyed, I feel as though I’m listening to a friend tell me about her life. In addition, it’s interesting to see the narrator fall in love with her hero and take the reader deep inside her emotions. Though I can’t think of any offhand, I’d also love to see an author use the hero as narrator. I’d be curious to experience a romance through his eyes and get to know him as a person, too.
Whether romance or chick lit, first-person narration also gives the reader a window deep into the emotions of the narrator. This can be very powerful. For instance, in A Clean Slate by Laura Caldwell, the narrator has lost months’ worth of her memory. Not only do we experience her rebuilding her life, but we get to feel the emotions of what such an experience would be like. The immediacy of the narration really makes this story and readers who avoid first-person narration would be missing a treasure if they passed up this one simply because it’s not the third-person style they’re used to.
As I read a good book, the story engages me and I almost feel as though I am part of the conversation. When the heroine finds herself in a bind, I want to argue with her. And when she meets her hero, I want to jump in, telling her, “This guy is perfect for you!” It’s true that something is missing by not having the perspective of other characters, but it’s nothing that wouldn’t be missing if we were hanging out with friends in real life and listening to them tell us what has been happening in their lives.
From a more romantic perspective, getting inside the head of a narrator allows us a window into what it is like to fall in love and the ways in which we get to know the different layers of another person. In the erotic romance The Diary of Cozette, Amanda McIntyre uses her narration for this. We get to follow her heroine over several years of adventures, see her develop attitudes about sex and love, and eventually see her fall in love. The book has weak points, but is interesting read and it’s largely the narrative style that holds the reader’s attention.
This is true of other novels I’ve read as well. Victoria Holt’s novels use first-person narration, and there’s something about experiencing the romance through the heroine’s eyes that makes her heroes seem that much more brooding. The settings feel more isolated and the mysteries a little more inscutable at first. This is likewise true of Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting. Without its narrator, it would have been impossible to experience Valmy from the outside looking in in quite the same way.
Linda Martin, the book’s narrator, comes to Valmy as a governess. Her observations about the family at Valmy start with her first impressions and then deepen as she witnesses more of the goings-on in the home. There’s something dangerous about the place and Linda pulls the reader right into the home with her. When Linda meets Raoul, it’s true that we do not have insight into his mind. However, we get to know him at the same pace that Linda does and that in and of itself makes for an interesting journey.
I have tried reading Nine Coaches Waiting while mentally transforming the narration from first-person to third-person. The breathless immediacy that keeps the reader turning pages quickly gets lost. There’s a certain bond that can form between reader and narrator in a first-person perspective that is different from that of third-person narrated books, and if one never reads books in the first person, that unique experience is lost.
Would I want to read all first-person, all the time? No. Third-person narration also brings insights that are unique to that particular perspective and I wouldn’t want to miss out on those. However, those who do not read books with first-person narration are giving up a variety of experiences. Figuring out a world through another’s eyes, bonding with a narrator/friend and getting to know a beloved person through the eyes of the one that loves them are all incredible experiences when done well, and I think my reading life would be so much poorer if I had closed my mind to the possibilities of going there.
– Lynn Spencer