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Books with recurring characters

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Posted by Mary Ann

Richard Ford is a writer I have always admired, but have at times found hard to love. Case in point: the four Richard Ford books featuring Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of “Let Me Be Frank With You” and three other novels.

In Ford’s first Frank Bascombe novel, 1986’s “The Sportswriter,” I thought to myself that Frank was a pretty cynical bastard. One thing Frank was cynical about was journalism, and when I read “The Sportswriter,” I was a young journalist, flush with idealism for my newly chosen profession.

Now, either Frank has gotten more perspective with age, or I have gotten more cynical myself, but in the pages of “Let Me Be Frank With You” I found myself identifying with something that Frank does or says or thinks on almost every page. That’s the beauty of following a character like Frank; you can follow not just the development of the character, but how your own perspectives have changed.

“The Sportswriter” was about a failed novelist who becomes a sportswriter, while simultaneously grappling with the death of his son (Ford became a sportswriter for a time after his first two books, both works of fiction, didn’t have much commercial success). It was followed by “Independence Day” in 1995; in that novel Frank has become a real estate agent, which, as I have pondered the situation, seems a truly wonderful occupation for a character in a novel, since real estate agents get to peer into the intimate lives of their clients, not to mention their houses. In The Lay of the Land,” Frank is in the full throes of grappling with middle age, including prostate cancer. Some readers thought that was it for Frank – there’s something about seeing him resurrected in “Let Me Be Frank with You” that’s just immensely satisfying.

This made me think of other novelists who follow the same character (or characters) through several books. I can think of a “recurring character” set of novels for almost every genre, thanks in part to the help of our Well Read readers.

Adventure: I am not really doing the novels of Patrick O’Brian justice by calling them “adventure” novels – they are also works of literary fiction in the best way.

The two recurring characters are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, a British ship’s captain and a British ship’s physician during the Napoleonic Wars. O’Brian, an immensely talented author who unfortunately has passed away, kept their story going for 20 novels! (Twenty-one, if you count one O’Brian was working on at the time of his death).

Aubrey and Maturin serve on British warships doing battle with the French.They make for a wonderfully mismatched pair. Aubrey is rough and tumble, a born fighter and risk-taker, a ladies’ man, gregarious and cheerful. Maturin is small, quiet, a deep thinker, a naturalist and a part-time opium addict. Maturin leads a double life – his role as a ship’s physician enables him to travel hither and yon and spy for the British Admiralty.

These two men, different in so many ways, share a love of adventure, women, music and good port. These books, starting with “Master and Commander,” will make you long to have seen the world as it was in the early 19th century – they travel all over the world, including Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands. Unfortunately, I get seasick easily so for me, the books are probably a better bet.

British noir: British author Patricia Highmith’s creation of Tom Ripley, the main character of her novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” was a shocker when she published her first Mr. Ripley book in 1955. It’s the story of a conscience-less young man, Ripley, who befriends Dickie, scion of a wealthy family. Ripley eventually murders Dickie and then spends the rest of the novel trying to persuade everyone who cared for Dickie that he committed suicide.

I’m not going to tell you how things turn out, but there are four other Ripley novels –  Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1991). The five novels are known collectively as the Ripliad. It is safe to say that Tom Ripley does not mend his ways. In one book he says he detests murder unless it’s “absolutely necessary.”

Science Fiction and fantasy: I’m not as well versed in this area as some of our Well Read viewers, and I got some great suggestions from them. One series, Diana Galbadon’s “Outlander” sequence of eight books, merge multiple genres, featuring elements of historical fiction, romance, mystery, adventure and science fiction/fantasy. Her story features a couple, Jamie and Claire, who thanks to time travel keep up a relationship, despite the fact that Claire is a 20th century woman and Jamie is a 17th century Scot. I love the fact that Gabaldon says she got the inspiration for this setup from watching an episode of Dr. Who.

Historical novels: I have to mention the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who has created not one, but two characters that travel though a number of novels. I’ve already mentioned Doyle’s wonderful comic novels “The Commitments,” about a bunch of working class Dublin youth that form a soul band, the “The Guts,” which follows the same group as they enter middle age.

Doyle published another series of novels, a trilogy that Doyle calls “The Last Roundup,” though I am not entirely sure why. I have read the first book in this series, “A Star Called Henry,” which features a young Irish man named Henry Smart. “Star” is set in Ireland in the era of political upheaval between the 1916 Easter Rising and the eventual truce signed with the United Kingdom in 1921. The story is told from the perspective of young Henry Smart, from his childhood to early twenties. Henry, who becomes an ardent supporter of independence for Ireland, mixes things up with real life people such as Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and Michael Collins. In “Oh, Play That Thing” Henry travels to America – Chicago, specifically – and gets in all kinds of trouble with gangsters, jazz musicians and other interesting characters. In “The Dead Republic” an aging Henry has returned to Ireland and confronts his past in a number of ways.


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