I was sitting next to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce when he challenged the group to recall a favorite first line of a book. His was the opening of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later, as he faced a firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
We went round robin. My contribution was the epic opening of John Mortimer’s introduction to his titular character in “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” a line (it stretches half a page) too long to reproduce here, let alone remember in full at the time.
I hadn’t thought about that conversation until last week, when I came across the short story “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas in The New Yorker. The story opens with the line, “I slept through the burglary.” Now, who could possibly do that? I thought. It’s a provocative lead, one that introduces the unique voice of a singular character. I read the story in one gulp.
There are many well-known openings, from Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) to the Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to the oft-parodied line from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
I’m sure you have some favorites, maybe Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” or Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
And then there are the lesser-known kickoffs, the ones that brim with promise, that say, if you keep reading, you shall discover new worlds with a companionable guide.
Here, in no particular order, is a collection of my favorites, a mix of contemporary and classic lines from male and female authors alike:
“Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.” Don Winslow, California Fire and Life.
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.
“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places.
“It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning.” Ellis Peters, The Sanctuary Sparrow.
“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne Lamott, Plan B.
“It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then.” Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley.
“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” Elmore Leonard, Glitz.
“This really happened, this story.” Laurie Lynn Drummond, Anything You Say Can and Will be Used Against You.
“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” T.C. Boyle, “Descent of Man.”
“Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits.” Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer.
“Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of.” C.J. Box, Open Season.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer.
“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money.
And lastly, my all-time favorite, a slight deviation from the pattern we’ve established here in that the quote needs a second sentence to complete the punchline. It’s from Jennifer Crusie’s breakout novel Tell Me Lies. “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”
Now that’s a keeper.
What are you favorite opening lines? Leave a comment here, or on your social medium of choice.