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:
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.
2) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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*).
8) 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.
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.
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.