5 books with thought-provoking structures.

5 books with thought-provoking structures.

Like most readers, I love books with strong characterization, compelling plots, and beautiful prose. However—and this may reveal the depths of my nerdiness—I’m always happy to find a book where the author has also done something unusual with the narrative structure.

Books with interesting structures give the reader an extra layer to unravel and appreciate. They deepen the experience of reading a good book, and salvage the experience of reading a mediocre one. (I’m looking at you, Gone Girl.) And they always make for great book club discussions.

These 5 books are (in my opinion) genuinely good to start with, but their interesting narrative structures elevate them to something special.

Einstein’s Dreams

Einstein’s Dreams

Author:

Science writer Lightman’s premise is as follows: in 1905, young Albert Einstein dreamed repeatedly about time as he worked on his paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” and made creeping progress on his special theory of relativity. Each dream reveals "one of the many possible natures of time.'' Lightman presents these (entirely fictional) dreams as a collection of poetic vignettes. Small enough to read in an afternoon, but easy to wander in and out of. Unusual and utterly delightful.

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The Engagements: A Novel

The Engagements: A Novel

This novel traces the path of a diamond engagement ring from 1901 to 2012, and the four couples it links. The ring is lost, found, and stolen; it becomes a symbol of lasting love, and of betrayal. Woven throughout is the story of Mary Frances Gerety, the copywriter responsible for De Beer’s iconic slogan "a diamond is forever." An easy read with emotional depth. More info →
Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long Life

Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long Life

In this biography-of-sorts, Rubin argues that the larger-than-life Churchill's portrait could be drawn in many ways, all "true." She presents 40 different angles on Churchill, as child, man, politician, leader, husband, etc. All are interesting; many contradict each other. This fascinating, multi-faceted approach appeals will appeal to some, and make others crazy. A little slow in places, but worth the time. If you like this, go on to read Forty Ways to Look at JFK, but only after you've read this one: Rubin explains the reasoning behind her "forty ways" approach in this volume and doesn't revisit them in JFK.

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Life After Life: A Novel

Life After Life: A Novel

Author:

I began this book knowing nothing about it, and it took me a while to get my bearings. Atkinson's creative (and sometimes, mind-bending) structure shows clearly how tiny choices in her protagonist's life (and the lives of those around her) lead to vastly different outcomes. Vastly. Bonus: Atkinson's novel is packed with literary references that serious literary types will appreciate.

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When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

What do you do when your mom dies and leaves you her old journals? And then you discover that her journals are blank? In 54 separate meditations, Williams unfolds the mystery of her mother's life, and of her empty journals, and explores the power of words—and withholding them.

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What would you add to this list?

P.S. Other books with fascinating structures: A Pattern Language, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Listening for Madeleine.

67 comments | Comment

67 comments

  1. Natasha says:

    Interesting list! Life After Life has been on my TBR list for years! I’m not sure if Tana French’s In the Woods would qualify, but I found it interesting that the story seemed to reaching the climax at the middle of the story and from there it seemed like nothing more interesting would happen (obviously, I was proven wrong). Either that or it’s just her style of writing, which I’m not used to. I’m going to let this percolate in my brain a bit longer… 🙂

  2. I am somewhat obsessed with epistolary novels: Guernsy Society, Ella Minnow Pea, and probably a bunch of others I can’t remember at the moment. 🙂

  3. Oh, and this year I finally read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. It definitely falls into that more interesting because of the format spectrum!

  4. Lori Carr says:

    What about Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I loved that it was all told with emails, thank you notes, journal entries, memos, etc.

    • Anne says:

      Ohhh, that reminds me of The Divorce Papers, which is told entirely through legal docs, emails, and personal correspondence.

    • Amy says:

      While I enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette? and can appreciate the creativity (and hard work!) it would take to write in that format, I found the structure to be more of a distraction – it’s SO much work to try to figure out who is a reliable narrator and who is not… but that is just me!

  5. Ashley says:

    This made me think of What Alice Forgot. Also Anne of Windy Poplars, which is the only book in the series told through letters. And a little bit of Rosamund Pilcher and Maeve Binchy who both tell different parts of their stories through different characters or short stories but eventually weave everything into a cohesive whole at the end.

  6. The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick is told almost entirely in letters to Richard Gere. It really has nothing to do with Richard Gere but it helps the main character process the death of his mother. Quirky, strange, moving and one of my favorite novels from last year.

    • Anne says:

      I’ve had that sitting on my nightstand ever since we chatted! (I haven’t opened it yet, but it’s there. 🙂 )

    • Milica says:

      I agree! And definitely a read. I originally got it as an audiobook but the letter format didn’t work as well for me in audio. I abandoned it for the book and loved it!

  7. This is such an interesting and timely subject as I was just reading an article that insisted upon traditional three-act structure. 🙂 Like you, I think there are a number of different ways that a good story can be told.

    • Tory says:

      To elaborate…. if I’m remembering this correctly it is a book about a guy reading a book by a guy who talked to some people who saw a movie about a thing. (I might not have all the layers right, it has been a while since I read it.)

    • Tim says:

      I love Lady Susan, as well as Love and Freindship. Both of them are epistolary, both show how creative Austen was at an early age, and both are a blast to read.

  8. Susan says:

    Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is a fantastic book and the structure definitely enhances the story.

    • Anne says:

      I really enjoyed that one but I can’t remember how Wein structured it. Clearly I need to revisit it. (It hasn’t even been that long!)

  9. Vanessa says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only person who hated GONE GIRL. I thought that book was absolutely awful and felt like throwing it across the room many times while I was reading it. It’s SO overhyped.

  10. The Master Quilter by Jennifer Chiaverini.
    This is probably my favorite book Ms Chiaverini has written. It wasn’t the plot that I found so fascinating but the way she delivered it. I don’t know if there is a specific name for this style or if it may fall under the POV category. She tells the same story in each chapter from every character’s POV. So with chapter one you get Sarah’s POV (I can’t remember who actually was first), the second you get the same events/story told from Summer’s POV, etc. Every chapter gives the reader more information about the big picture. I thought this was a clever plot device. Plus, I think it demonstrates the great writing ability Ms Chiaverini has with telling the story from all of these POVs by keeping each character’s personality without losing sight of the theme.

    Has anyone read this one?

    • Kim S. says:

      I haven’t but I will absolutely up it on my TBR list. I love Jennifer Chiaverini, both the Elm Quilt set and the historical fiction set.

  11. Halie Zimmerman says:

    I think the Griffin & Sabine correspondence would fit into this category. I fell in love with the format, and therefore, the story.

  12. Dana says:

    Life After Life has been on my radar for a while.

    I loved the Time Traveler’s Wife.

    I like stories that are told from multiple POVs.

    One of the best I have read was Songs of The Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult. In it a woman and her daughter are relating events in their lives on a cross- country trip one telling it from the beginning and the other telling it from the end. Their versions finally converge in the middle of Iowa at the scene of a horrible event that happened years earlier. Great read.

  13. Kim S. says:

    I just finished reading “Hidden” by Catherine McKenzie. It’s written from three points of view: a man, his wife, and a coworker. Great read.

  14. Kate says:

    Two novels that come to mind are Possession by A.S. Byatt, and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. At first I was confused by all the jumping around in the timeline in The Night Circus, but then decided that keeping track of the continuity just doesn’t matter, and ultimately adds to the overall dreamlike quality of the writing.

    • liz n. says:

      “English Passengers” is similar to “The Night Circus” in that the timeline is all over the place. At first, it’s confusing, but that confusion actually contributes to the several points of view in the book. I think this structure works really well for both these books because both authors made the structure essential to the feel of the book. When it’s done simply as a hook or gimmick, it never works.

    • Anne says:

      I’ve had The Night Circus on my list (I *almost* just started it on audio but went with Ender’s Game instead) and I’m glad to hear more about it.

  15. Also, Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Have you read that one? It was her first book and kind of autobiographical, I think. There is a chronological story and then a “footnote” based on an item mentioned and some family history story. Really interesting.

      • Lisa says:

        Try the audio version. That’s how I “read” it, and the narrator does a great job of bring the main character to life. I do have to say that the subplot left me cold, but I loved the boy’s story.

  16. Katie says:

    “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, clearly my favorite book from last year….I can’t stop thinking about it. Amazing structure, risky…but it works!

    • Tory says:

      I thought the skipping around time periods was confusing and added nothing to the story. I did love the short chapters and different POVs though! This book made me want to go read some Jules Verne.

  17. Suzanne says:

    Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell has the most innovative structure of any novel I’ve ever read. I was completely confused about what was going on until half way through the book (if I had looked ahead, I might have picked up on it sooner), but as soon as I realized what he was doing I thought it was the most creative brilliant thing ever. Definitely an all time favorite.

  18. ann says:

    I’m sorry, and I may be your only reader that feels this way, but I feel like mentioning that only 2 of these 5 books are actually novels. In this post (and in another recent post) you talk about books that aren’t novels as if they are novels. Am I crazy? Doesn’t the term novel refer strictly to fictional narratives?

    I appreciate the topic of the post and am actually quite interested in the non-fiction titles as well as the fiction.
    Thanks.

  19. Julie R says:

    I loved the structure of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and the way the stories of all the characters came together.

  20. Beth says:

    Wives of Los Alamos is the only book I’ve read written in first person plural. I liked it for the climax, but for those few hundred pages before, it was a little tiring! (Still, who would have thought to write a book like that??)

  21. Flynn says:

    “S” by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst is definitely a mind-bending structure with an interesting plot too. I’ve heard its structure compared to The House of Leaves.

  22. Rachel says:

    I immediately thought of Station Eleven when I saw the post title. Also, The Blind Assassin. The Engagements sounds interesting–adding that to my TBR 🙂

  23. Jory says:

    Meg Cabot’s “Boy” series is epistolary, told through emails and IM chats. They are also very funny. And, of course, there’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is in diary format and can’t be bothered with pronouns.

  24. Muriel Barbery’s two novels, Une Gourmandise (Gourmet Rhapsody) and L’Élégance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog)! I’ve read them in French, but because so much of the magic rests on the way the story is woven together I feel like translations would retain much of the original flavour.
    One line teasers:
    Gourmet Rhapsody – A dying food critic drifts into musing about the most delicious taste he’s ever felt as his entourage react to his debilitating illness.
    The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Upstairs, a brilliant preteen makes a comprehensive study on whether life is worth living, while downstairs the old concierge reveals her secret life of the mind to a newcomer in the building.

  25. shereeliz caldwell says:

    I loved The Hours, showing characters from three different eras, all effected by Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway, including the author herself. Of course there is the notorious Ulysses by James Joyce showing unremarkable events within the lives of ordinary characters in Dublin and how they interconnect. Also one has to mention as a structural literary coup–Nabokov’s Pale Fire in which you have an unreliable academician critiquing a colleague’s work but letting his own footnotes take over the piece which reveals his own decreasing sanity and jealousy of his fellow professor.

  26. Jennyroo says:

    In the three years since you posted this, I would have to add I Was Anastasia to the list. Chapter by chapter alternating between young Anastasia (moving forward) and older woman trying to prove she is Anastasia, moving backwards. I loved it! Such a clever way to tell the story!!

  27. Allison Mull says:

    I clicked on the link to this post because I knew you’d have Life After Life on here. KNEW. IT. And so happy you did. If I didn’t already love Kate Atkinson before this book came out, Life After Life sealed the deal. I won “favorite book” in my book club’s annual vote of all the books we read one year WITH THAT BOOK (but I won’t tell you which two wildly popular, critically acclaimed, AWARD WINNING books have garnered me the “least favorite” book prize (a nerdy looking gnome) for the last two years. It almost makes me weep. No accounting for taste. Anyway.)
    Thank you for including Life After Life in this post. I wholeheartedly agree and feel really validated. Love your podcast. Want to be on it. Reading is life. Amen.
    P. S. I read Einstein’s Dreams so very long ago. Happy to see it again here.

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