Sample Reading Report: A Mainstream Novel
- September 28, xxxx
- Working Naked
WHAT WORKS: Quite a lot. For one, the story of the hooker trying to make something of herself has been around for quite a while, but with Louis and his laid back, family whorehouse, you've given it a new and plausible twist. Darlene is delightfully believable both in her role as a trailer-trash Pygmalion to be -- Picasso the pet snail is a great touch. Also, you've created some wonderfully endearing minor characters, such as Pruett the lecherous dean or Harold the bug-eating entomologist. And I loved the two self-righteous homeless whom Darlene invited to Thanksgiving. You make good use of the Sagebrush Rebellion as background and plausibly capture the pettiness of small college life. You've got a lot going for you.
WHAT NEEDS WORK:
CHARACTER: But there are problems as well, of course. Probably your largest is that Randolph's character never really gels. It's clear that you intended to have him be so bitter about his divorce that he's unwilling to open his heart or even pay attention to Darlene as a possible romantic partner. Then she, with her lack of guile, manages to win his heart in the classic Pygmalion style. The problem is, you never inhabit his head thoroughly enough that your readers can feel his bitterness. We know what happened between him and his wife, but we never get a feeling for the happy life together that she destroyed -- we don't know what her betrayal felt like. As a result, we don't feel his hatred for women enough for him to gain sympathy, and his treatment of Darlene feels too much like indifference and occasional cruelty. In short, he's your main character, and I didn't like him very much.
There are one or two other, minor places where that lack of sympathy shows up as well -- the culture clash during the dinner at the Boquists was a bit heavy handed, for instance, mostly because we never really felt Darlene's growing nervousness about fitting in.
PLOT:While you do handle the Pygmalion plot well and in an original setting, it is still recognizably the Pygmalion plot. Indeed it's quite straightforward. Hooker moves in with college professor, learns to fit in after a rocky start, then through native charm and simplicity coaxes him out of his shell and into falling in love with her. There are no real surprises and, except for the brief parting at the end, no major plot twists. Even your main subplot, Randolph's tension with Pruett, resolves itself with little muss or fuss.
You're also not making good use of the details of your setting and background. Darlene and Randolph meet through the curlews, for instance, and you develop the tension between the locals and the government with Randolph in the middle for a good portion of the book -- including the fire that drives Darlene away from the brothel. Yet except for his mating dance at the end, the curlews and the tension about them never play a role in the story. The fact that Darlene is an ex-hooker never really enters into the story past a certain point, either. It's part of her character, but it never really intrudes on her life on campus.
All you need to make Randolph more sympathetic is a stylistic shift to a more intimate point of view. We need to see a bit more of his memories and of what he expects and suspects of Darlene (a simple dislike of women isn't detailed enough) to understand how he feels. I'm less sure how you could use the details of your setup to further complicate your plot. I suspect that you could interweave Darlene's employment history into Randolph's battle with Pruett by having Darlene publicly accuse Pruett of sexual harassment and having him counter with the claim that you can't sexually harass a prostitute. Perhaps the situation could resolve with Darlene admitting she was a prostitute as a way of rising above her past, or perhaps Louis and some of her supporters on campus could arrange things to cover up her history. Or perhaps Randolph could admit his love for her despite her past, with the expectation that it will cost him his job, then discover that the College President has visited the Calico Club on occasion.
As to what I can do next, I'd love to read the manuscript a second time, then write up a lengthy memo (probably 25-35 pages, double spaced) going into detail on the problems I've mentioned above. Now that I know where your plot and characters are headed, I can pay much closer attention to how they get there. Please get in touch and we'll work out a time to phone. And I'll look forward to working with you further.