A Close Read

What makes good writing good

She goes to Eileen, stopping by after work. Eileen makes instant and listens without judging or giving advice. Patty knows she won't discuss it with her mother—maybe Cy, but he's safe, Eileen would never forgive him if he told anyone. As if to make things even, Eileen offers her a secret: they're getting married.

In June. Nothing fancy, just a small ceremony at their old church and a reception for friends at the Moose Lodge. —from The Good Wife, by Stewart O'Nan (Farrar Straus and Giroux)

Stewart O'Nan gets his characters to tell their own stories. He keeps the vocabulary colloquial—"stopping by," "makes instant," "make things even," "listens without judging" (pop-culture shorthand for the attitude now expected of a confidante). The way he builds his sentences captures the leapfrogging, occasionally ungrammatical style of real people's real thoughts: "maybe Cy" instead of "she might tell Cy," for instance. Of course, this naturalness is an illusion (a transcript of thought and conversation would yield mostly a slop of imprecision and repetition), but O'Nan's fingerprints are unobtrusive. He uses a dangling participial phrase (a favorite device of his) to good effect in the first sentence, separating the key information—Patty's need for Eileen—from the mere logistics that trail after it. The easy, rolling rhythm of this construction, and its slightly meandering quality, remind the reader that this is a story, not a recitation of facts. The word "offers" later in the passage underscores the idea that sharing an intimacy is a generous attempt to keep the relationship equal; though in no way jarring (O'Nan is never jarring), it betrays the writer at work simply because, unlike conversational language, it's so apt. The final two "sentences" nicely exemplify his contrived naturalness. The bursts of particulars are Eileen's answers, just the way she might deliver them, but Patty's prompts are only implied, for the passage would drag if it were presented as dialogue, weighed down by the obvious questions. Instead, with striking economy O'Nan infuses these lines with the liveliness of conversation; drives the story forward with the promise of future events; reminds the reader of Eileen's unpretentiousness; brings Patty's sorrow (her own husband is in prison) into bold relief; and even demonstrates how sensitive Eileen is to Patty's feelings, in that she reveals, without enthusiasm, only the most basic details of the sort of plans a woman is expected to gush over.

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Christina Schwarz is the author of the novels Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity.

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