Every other year or so, I pull all my Austen novels off the shelf and indulge in an binge, complete with all the notes I wrote in the margins during college. At the moment, I’m on Sense and Sensibility, one of her less well-loved books. The happy ending, especially for the passionate Marianne, never feels wholly satisfying. The classic (or perhaps clichéd) spirited young women ends up marrying the stable and sedate older man she once disdained, subverting all the emotional intensity that made her fascinating. As I was reading the critical notes in the introduction (have I mentioned I’m a nerd?), I noticed the following gem: “Austen’s ending reads like a covert acknowledgement that the problem she set out to explore—the antagonism between social norms and individual personality–really has no definitive solution, or at least no happy one.”*
It’s often repeated that as writers we should write what we know, but I think a more satisfying strategy is to write what we want to understand. It’s the things that bother and intrigue me, the things I want to explore, that keep me up at night and drive me to write. Each book in my Shadowminds series has been, in a way, an attempt to understand what it means to find a home for yourself, usually where you least expect it. As a Southerner who’s been transplanted on the West Coast, the sense of displacement and the search for family among strangers are struggles I hold close to my heart.
Austen was clearly fascinated with the tensions between individual desire and social norms, and I think that fascination is what makes her books endure. The opposing forces that anchor those tensions might be in different places now, but they’re no less present. Most of the books that stay with me are those that try to understand enduring human problems, whether it’s something as lofty as the price of power or as mundane as family bonds. (I’m thinking of the Harry Potter series and Cecilia Grant’s Blackshear trilogy of historical romances.) What books do you think try to understand something timeless?
*Paul Montazzoli, Introduction to Sense and Sensibility, 1996
A.J. Larrieu is a Louisiana native and the author of the Shadowminds series, sexy urban fantasy set in New Orleans. She lives in San Francisco with her family and too many books.