The Top Ten Best First Lines of Fiction (Oh Yeah, All by Women Writers)

Not only can (and should) you judge a book by its cover, but the first line is always a pretty good indicator of whether you’re going to like a book or not.  The best kinds of first sentences can epitomize tone, style, character, philosophy, themes and a whole lot else.  I’m willing to keep reading something if the first few lines don’t really grab me, but I would really rather be sucked right in with no escape, as I was with these:

pride and prejudice1)      Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813): “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Does this sentence not epitomize Austen’s dazzling wit and ability to use free indirect discourse to the best advantage?  This is not Mrs. Bennet speaking, but it is.

orlando2)     Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1929): “He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”

Only Woolf would decide to include a dash after the first word in a novel, and for a brilliant reason here: this novel tells you immediately that Woolf is never going to take gender for granted, and that she intends to fuck with whatever notions you already have about it.  This first line also, of course, implicates the novel in racism and imperialism, making links between gender, race, and empire.

miseducation3)     Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012): “The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.”

The juxtaposition here between casual teenage shoplifting and the death of a girl’s parents is shocking.  The deceptively casual yet heartbreaking tone is indicative of the rest of Danforth’s smart, authentic young adult novel.

harrietthespyillustration4)     Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy (1964): “Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town.”

This line just screams childhood weirdness and innocence to me.  Here’s a made-up game, that Harriet has importantly decided to call “Town” with a capital t.  Let her show you how it’s done.  Also, I love how this sentence just drops you right in the middle of Harriet’s world.

oranges5)     Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985): “Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father.”

Winterson has a way of making the personal seem universal and the recent past timeless.  The opening of her semi-autobiographical novel is a great example.

tipping6)     Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet (1998): “Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?”

Okay, do I have to spell out the fact that vaginas look like oysters and other similar shellfish?  Well, I just did it.  So this line tells us about Nan’s working class roots and her impending lesbianism.  Also, I love how this sentence addresses the reader directly.

desert of the heart7)     Jane Rule, Desert of the Heart (1964): “Conventions, like clichés, have a way of surviving their own usefulness.”

Rule was a fiction writer, but often the openings of her novels feel like philosophical statements that you could probably write an essay on.  There’s a lot to think about,  packed into this short sentence.  And if you’ve never read this book, aren’t you curious as to what conventions she means (*cough*heteropatriarchy*cough*).

anne of green gables8)    Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908): “Mrs Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops, and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs Rachel was sitting at her door, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.”

This opening is so dramatic, and 19th century, and just ridiculously long.  Yes, that is actually grammatically one sentence.  One long, rambling sentence just like the brook it’s talking about.  I love the bad-ass character Rachel Lynde and the fact that a brook slows down and has due respect for modesty and good manners in front of her house.  Watch out Anne.

the bell jar9)      Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963): “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

This opening makes me feel shivery, a bit apprehensive, and deliciously expectant.  What does she mean, she doesn’t know what she’s doing in New York?  Shouldn’t she be finding herself?  And what the fuck does this have to do with spies being executed?  Plath’s sentence just feels like a muggy, claustrophobic, yet somehow sexy New York summer.

harry10) J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997): “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

Rowling’s first sentence of the epic Harry Potter series tells us right away that normal is not something to be desired.  It’s probably one of the best lessons ever for kids.  I also love how this is not a direct quotation, but it sounds just like a stuffy middle-class white person.  Rowling must have read Austen.

Okay, what amazing first lines did I miss? I know some of you must have other favourites.

About caseythecanadianlesbrarian

I’m a writer from Canada’s west coast currently based in Vancouver. I have an honours BA in English and German from the University of Victoria and an MA in English from Dalhousie University in Halifax (yes, living near the ocean is a necessity for me). My love of literature is pretty inclusive, but I am especially partial to that which is queer, feminist, Canadian and/or written by women. Some of my favourite authors are: Alison Bechdel, Dionne Brand, Ivan E. Coyote, Anne Fleming, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Shani Mootoo, Eden Robinson, Sarah Waters, Zoe Whittall, Jeanette Winterson, and Virginia Woolf. When I’m not reading, I enjoy experimenting with creative vegetarian(ish) cooking, doing ashtanga yoga, running, cruising around on my bike named Harriet the Spy, and going to see live music.
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3 Responses to The Top Ten Best First Lines of Fiction (Oh Yeah, All by Women Writers)

  1. Pingback: Link Round Up: January 16 – 22 | The Lesbrary

  2. morag99 says:

    “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

    That’s from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. 

    I’m really enjoying your book reviews, even though I’m not reading much lately. That mood will change, though–it always does–and when it does, I’ll be sure to sample from your many recommendations. Thank you!

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