Short Reading Lessons in Writing: The Trial of Love

A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month.  The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along.

Beginning last month, that staff member has been me.

My biggest worry has been that the group wouldn’t accept me.  They’ve gone through three librarians before me, and two of them apparently had personality clashes with a certain vocal minority, hence the reassignment—their favorite left the library for a directorship a couple states away . . .though I’m sure there’s no correlation at all.

My next biggest worry was the coffee—I don’t drink it, so I wouldn’t have a clue whether I’d made a pot of ambrosia or yuck.*

Today was my second time, both moderating and percolating, and except for a small panic late last week when I realized that the story for May was missing the last page** and our copy of the anthology was checked out,*** everything went pretty well.

The story was “The Trial of Love” by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ^ of Frankenstein fame.  It centers on a young Italian woman, who has fallen in love with a young man of the noble class.  At his disapproving father’s insistence, the couple has vowed to neither speak nor write to each other for a year–if they still wish to marry each other at the end of that time, the father will make no objection.  The story opens a few months before the year is up, and the young man has appeared near the village where the young woman is staying.  But her beautiful, noble-born, and spoiled foster-sister has also returned from her finishing school . . .

It was a hoot and a half—the discussion, not the story, which was written around 1820 by an author not known for her frivolity.

It was also a learning experience for anyone who wants to know how readers (other than themselves) think.  These ladies and one gentleman know what they like (and dislike) and exactly why they like (or dislike) it, and they are not shy with their explanations.

You won’t find many of these reasons in standard literary criticisms, but that doesn’t make them invalid—it might make them more relevant.

Everyone thought the story was well-written, descriptive, and very easy to read—even the ones who didn’t know who Mary Shelley is. But not all of them liked it.

That’s a lesson or two in itself, I think—both that good writing doesn’t automatically translate into an enjoyable story and even one of the best writers (arguably) in history won’t please everyone.

Though the majority thought the plot was overly predictable, the ending wasn’t what they expected—or wanted.

Mary Shelley’s original audience probably wouldn’t have found the plot so familiar or the ending so disappointing.  These modern readers, though, were slightly bored with the 190-year-old, familiar plot, which they expected to end in one of two predictable but satisfying ways.  But it didn’t—and when no twist or startling turn of events, or even a personal revelation, happened to replace those expectations, they felt that the MC (and by extension, the author) had let them down.   So familiarity breeds both contempt and comfort—and there’s a danger in leaving a reader’s expectations unfulfilled.

Quite a few disliked that the plot hinges on lack of communication.

Readers are becoming just a tad fed up with plots depending on characters’ inability to listen and unwillingness to speak up.  We’ve got to find other ways to stretch a story, people!

Most had personal associations that enhanced their reading—or the reverse.

One reader loved the story because it was set in Italy and the descriptions reminded her of her vacation there.  One thought the MC’s name sounded too much like an actress she disliked.  One didn’t want to read a love story at all—one of them was a romance reader and didn’t think it was enough of a love story.  Still another disliked the religious aspects.  One was such a fan of Mary Shelley that the story could have been called “Atlantis Rising,” and he would have pronounced it perfection.  Draw your own conclusions.

So I learned a lot, and since the next story is a contemporary ‘howdunit,’ I hope to lean even more.

The best part, though, was when one of the vocal members—about whom I’d been warned and who had frowned at me throughout last month’s meeting—came up to me afterward, patted my arm and told me how much she appreciated that I’d listened to her suggestion and moved the tables closer together this month so that everyone could hear.

Then she winked at me and said the coffee was perfect.

  Looks like I’m in!


* My husband, with whom I shared my fears, kissed me goodbye this morning, looked into my eyes and said, “Don’t poison anyone.”  That man is the wind beneath my wings.

**It was a Jeffrey Archer, too, which meant the final twist and whole point of the story was on that last page.  Have to say, part of my upset was that I didn’t want to wait to know how it ended.

***Did a WorldCat search and called the nearest library that owned it.  They faxed over the page Friday and I carefully made 25 copies, which I carefully forgot to take with me and had to pick up on Saturday, but that was okay, since a few of the items I’d ILL’ed had arrived and I didn’t want to wait for those, either.

^The Oxford Book of English Love Stories (ed. John Sutherland, 1996)


8 thoughts on “Short Reading Lessons in Writing: The Trial of Love

  1. I love your role in this story as being the voyeuristic/eavesdropping librarian/writer gleaning some pretty good (and accurate) market research (or consumer research). 😀

    I myself am a bookseller, so I’ve been privy to similar group meetings and their often surprising verdicts. It does sound like you’re group has much more to discuss about what they read than whether or not they liked it, which makes me envious. All of our local reading groups are pretty much thumbs up or thumbs down and then meeting adjourned. Very often they don’t discuss the why’s, and definitely not in such depth. I hope to read more about this little group’s meets.

    • Well, we do serve pretty good cookies . . . 😉

      I’ve been writing up a list of leading questions, just in case things lag—but this group usually answers them before I ask! The core members have been meeting for a few years, so I’m sure that helps—they’re comfortable with sharing. And arguing!

      I’ll be sure to pass along those pearls of wisdom that I’m able to recognize.

  2. What a treat. I love this fly on the wall expose.
    I wonder if they knew you were taking notes, if they’d have spoken less or more.
    Sounds like probably more.

  3. What a great role to be in! I love the idea of a short story reading group . Considering this month’s book is turning out to be pure drudge for me, I may suggest traveling this route to my book club.

    • It really is easier. There’s plenty of material in all genres and even if a reader dislikes a story, they don’t feel that they’ve wasted too much time on it.

    • I think so! I found it fascinating that this group found the 1820 writing style, complete with info dump and backstory, easier to read than the previous one, which followed all the modern “rules” about adverbs and action verbs and so on.

      There’s a lot out there on how writers “should” write, but very little on how readers actually read. I know taste is purely subjective, but still . . . we might want to look into that.

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