First lines are the handshakes writers give their readers.
As we slide into the story, we’ll always remember that first impression of the opening sentence's firm, self-assured grip. If we don’t remember those first lines, it’s probably because the author gave us a clammy, limp-fingered greeting. In her debut story collection, Love Stories in This Town, novelist Amanda Eyre Ward has no problem with “gripping” first lines.
Readers familiar with Ward’s previous works of fiction—the novels Sleep Toward Heaven, How to Be Lost and Forgive Me--already know she can plot herself out of a paper bag with ease. With a relaxed, witty style, she has a way of burrowing right to the heart of her characters—ordinary folks who find themselves caught in the turbulence of unexpected circumstances. The same holds true for Love Stories in This Town. The majority of these tales open like a bullet coming from the barrel of a gun.
I have always been a sucker for first sentences. I can remember moments in my life when opening lines stopped me short (and then pushed me forward, as all great beginnings should do): specifically, Raymond Carver
My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.and Richard Ford
(“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”)
All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back. The year, in other words, when life changed for all of us and forever—ended, really, in a way none of us could ever have imagined in our most brilliant dreams of life.
Ward, in my humble opinion, is their equal (at least in the First Lines Dept.). The dozen tales in Love Stories in This Town are sharp-focused family snapshots, catching husbands, wives, children, parents, lovers and ex-lovers in moments of confusion, hope, paranoia, delight, resentment and all the other ingredients of the human stew.
A young couple, still reeling from a miscarriage, searches for a new home in a strange town. In another story, it’s the anticipation of a pregnancy that provides the suspense as a young woman working at a dot-com tries to sort out conflicted feelings of motherhood. Lola, the character at the center of connected stories in the book’s second half, spends most of her life looking for her place in life. The pall of 9/11 hangs over several of the stories, as do the dark clouds of romance.
Yes, I said “dark clouds.” Despite the breezy nature of Ward’s style, there’s an underlying effort to strip away the happy, shiny veneer of love, Hollywood-style. The title of the book, after all, is taken from a line of dialogue spoken by a cynical bartender: “There are no love stories in this town.”
I could go on at length about the many charms of the book, but I’ll just use this space to pinpoint some of Ward’s excellent opening lines:
They told us the baby was dead, and two days later we were on a plane to Texas. (“The Stars Are Bright in Texas”)
A woman had drowned in the lake, but that did not make it any less picturesque. (“On Messalonskee Lake”)
I had heard about the rib, of course, but did not expect it to be at the Smiths’ Christmas party. Yet there it was, on the mantel, sandwiched between a bowl of cinnamon-scented potpourri and a holly sprig. Merry Christmas! Here’s our daughter’s rib. (“The Way the Sky Changed”)
The man Lola loved wasn’t marrying her, and she didn’t know what to wear to the wedding. (“Miss Montana’s Wedding Day”)
Lola thought the baby shower would be canceled due to the beheading, but she was wrong. (“Motherhood and Terrorism”)
And this, from my favorite story in the collection—“Butte as in Beautiful”—which, if memory serves me right, was the very first sentence of Ward’s I ever read, years ago when someone sent me a link to an on-line version of the story. The rest of the story, as with all of the other examples I cited above, more than fulfills that tantalizing handshake promise of its opening words. I dare anyone to stop reading after a sentence like this:
It’s a crappy coincidence that on the day James asks for my hand in marriage, there is a masturbator loose in the library.