A Close Read

What makes good writing good

By Christina Schwarz
“More and more toast, slice after slice, wholewheat and heavy and lavish with butter—even Beth chews and swallows and reaches for more until soon a whole loaf has, like Philip, vanished. Crumbs lie scattered over three black laps and the pine tabletop and the blue-tiled floor at their feet, and still they are hungry. People don’t stock groceries with such ravenous emergencies in mind, so when their collective desires shift to the sweet they do not have on hand the chocolate ice cream, vanilla cakes, muffins flecked with raisins, cookies stuffed with jam, also butter tarts, also cinnamon rolls, that they crave. Even Beth lusts after sugar despite considering sugar, like coffee, ruinous.”

—from Luck, by Joan Barfoot (Carroll & Graf)

Barfoot’s writing is exuberant, packed with active verbs. Beth doesn’t merely eat; she “chews and swallows and reaches.” The author’s use of past participles, verbs transformed into adjectives, peps up her list of sweets: “muffins flecked with raisins, cookies stuffed with jam.” In general, she keeps her adjectives basic and unqualified, giving them the boldness of primary colors or whole notes: “black,” “pine,” “blue-tiled,” “chocolate,” “vanilla,” “butter,” “cinnamon.” Her repetition of “more and more,” “slice after slice,” and “wholewheat” and “whole,” her plethora of “and”s in the first sentence, her unconventional repetition of the word “also” in the penultimate sentence—they all mimic the abundance she describes, as does her use of lists in every sentence but the last. She composes these with an admirable ear, artfully grouping similar structures but often shifting those structures so that the effect is both lavish—to borrow one of her pleasing words—and lively. More subtly, Barfoot links the lavish loaf and the vanished Philip by using words similar in sound, and calls attention to the ties among “lust,” “sugar,” and “ruinous” in the final sentence by repeating the letter “u.” “Ruinous” also echoes “ravenous,” a transferred epithet that is disconcerting syntactically, just as the loss of Philip is existentially.

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