You Had Me At...

There is some debate over how important an opening line of a book is for the reader. Personally, I will try to give a book fifty pages to give it a chance to win me over. Sometimes, however, that first line lets me know straight away that I am in for something special. It does not happen very often, but when it does, I know the story’s characters and I will be the best of friends during our time together. Recently, I was reading André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, and there was something about the novel’s first line, “’Later?’ The word, the voice, the attitude.” I was drawn in from those seven words. Even revisiting that opening line now, I could talk your ear off about about how critical the book's first line is for the entire novel.

Some opening lines are so popular that you may have not even read the books, but you still know how they start. For instance, many people can recall Herman Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” from Moby-Dick (1851) or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times [...]” from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Of course, there are the random opening lines that just may may not be as widely known. For example, I thoroughly enjoy the first line “It was 7 minutes after midnight” from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003).

American Book Review pulled together the “100 Best First Lines from Novels”. I have pulled ten from their list to test your literature knowledge. They may not be the most well known, but they may just capture your interest to check out the rest of the novel. See if you can match the first line with its respective novel:

Opening Line:

1.“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”

2. “You better not never tell nobody but God.”

3. " It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

4. "It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

5. “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”

6. “All this happened, more or less.”

7. “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.”

8. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

9. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

10. “They shoot the white girl first.”

Author, Novel:

A. George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

B. Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

C. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

D. Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

E. W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge (1944)

F. Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

G. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

H. Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

I. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

J. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)


1. (C) William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929) Summary: The story of the tragic Caddy Compson, as seen through the eyes of her three brothers--the idiot Benjy, the neurotic Quentin, and the monstrous Jason.

2. (G) Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982). Summary: Published to unprecedented acclaim, The Color Purple established Alice Walker as a major voice in modern fiction. This is the story of two sisters--one a missionary in Africa and the other a child wife living in the South--who sustain their loyalty to and trust in each other across time, distance, and silence. Beautifully imagined and deeply compassionate, this classic novel of American literature is rich with passion, pain, inspiration, and an indomitable love of life.

3. (A) George Orwell, 1984 (1949). Summary: Nineteen Eighty-Four revealed George Orwell as one of the twentieth century's greatest mythmakers. While the totalitarian system that provoked him into writing it has since passed into oblivion, his harrowing cautionary tale of a man trapped in a political nightmare has had the opposite fate: its relevance and power to disturb our complacency seem to grow decade by decade. In Winston Smith's desperate struggle to free himself from an all-encompassing, malevolent state, Orwell zeroed in on tendencies apparent in every modern society, and made vivid the universal predicament of the individual.

4. (D) Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992). Summary: Iain Banks' The Crow Road, the tale of Prentice McHoan and his complex but enduring Scottish family. Prentice, preoccupied with thoughts of sex, death, booze, drugs, and God, has returned to his home village of Gallanach full of questions about the McHoan past, present, and future. When his beloved Uncle Rory disappears, Prentice becomes obsessed with the papers Rory left behind -- the notes and sketches for a book called "The Crow Road". With the help of an old friend, Prentice sets out to solve the mystery of his uncle's disappearance, inadvertently confronting the McHoans' long association with tragedy -- an association that includes his sister's fatal car crash and his father's dramatic death by lightning.

5. (B) Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911). Summary: In nineteenth-century Starkfield, Massachusetts, a poor young farmer falls in love with the vivacious Mattie, cousin of his sickly, demanding wife, and starts a devastating chain of events. Includes explanatory notes throughout the text, an introduction discussing the author and the background of the story, and a study guide.

6. (J) Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Summary: Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time. Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world's great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.

7. (E) W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge (1944). Summary: Larry Darrell is a young American in search of the absolute. The progress of his spiritual odyssey involves him with some of Maugham's most brilliant characters - his fiancée, Isabel whose choice between love and wealth have lifelong repercussions, and Elliott Templeton, her uncle, a classic expatriate American snob. Maugham himself wanders in and out of the story, to observe his characters struggling with their fates.

8. (F) Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915). Summary: Ford Madox Ford's shocking insight into the lives of two rich and idle couples whose vacuous existences are filled to bursting point with selfishness, jealousy and lust is a milestone in twentieth-century literature. Brilliantly cast and featuring the most deviously unreliable narrator since Iago, The Good Soldier tells a roller-coaster tragic-comic tale of characters who are by no means what they seem, and get exactly what they deserve. And as the author observes with chilling truthfulness, such people can wreak terrible damage on the innocent along the way.

9. (I) C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952). Summary: Lucy and Edmund, accompanied by their peevish cousin Eustace, sail to the land of Narnia where Eustace is temporarily transformed into a green dragon because of his selfish behavior and skepticism. [Note: The fifth book from the classic fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia.]

10. (H) Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998). Summary: In Paradise, Toni Morrison gives us a bravura performance. As the book begins deep in Oklahoma early one morning in 1976, nine men from Ruby (pop. 360), in defense of "the one all-black town worth the pain," assault the nearby Convent and the women in it. From the town's ancestral origins in 1890 to the fateful day of the assault, Paradise tells the story of a people ever mindful of the relationship between their spectacular history and a void "Out There...where random and organized evil erupted when and where it chose." Richly imagined and elegantly composed, Paradise weaves a powerful mystery.

- Anna V., Hopewell Branch


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