It is often said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; but what about first lines? So many classics have become synonymous with their beginnings—and for good reason. Who could ever forget Charles Dickens’ opener in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Or what about Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or perhaps you’re more of a Shakespearean: “Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”
For some novelists, the first sentence is everything. Years ago, Stephen King remarked that it was all about the opening, “over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got” he told The Atlantic. Peter Heller’s approach is to “start with a first line and let it rip”—in essence, there is no way of knowing what will come next in the writing process, except to begin. Whereas, Min Jin Lee deployed her first line “to serve as a thesis statement.”
The best first lines, in my opinion, both dazzle and invite intrigue: they share a bit about the writing style, give color to the voice, and attempt to arrest your attention and invite you into the world that the author is about to unveil. There is nothing like the excitement of a first line. So we have pulled a few of our favorites from the past decade, and next week we'll showcase some of our favorites from books publishing this spring and summer. So without further ado…
Favorite first lines from the past decade:
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.”
We named The Sympathizer a Best Book of the Month, a Best Book of 2015, and it also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an Edgar Award and the Andrew Carnegie Medal in fiction. The first line says it all—set during the Vietnam War and afterwards, this award-winning novel tells the story of a man playing both sides, who must face the consequences both at home and abroad.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”
Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel swept us away—we named it a Best Book of the Month in 2018—and arrested us with its distinctly dramatic first line, narrated by 14-year-old Nathaniel. Together with his sister, Nathaniel finds himself living in bombed-out London with two shady characters after the disappearance of their parents at the close of WWII. As the years go on, Nathaniel learns about the covert goings on of his mother as a spy, discovering the past was not quite as he remembered it.
Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman
“Many would call me a dishonest man, but I’ve always kept faith with myself. There is an honesty in that, I think.”
A Best Book of the Month, Green on Blue unravels the complexities of the Afghan war, then dissolves it all into the brutal heartache of reality—where home is a battlefield, fighting is a job, vengeance is a moral right, and war has no sides. The book, and the first line, are narrated by Aziz, an Afghani boy whose life is turned upside down by the war, yet it's the war that allows him to prosper—but at what cost? A fierce and haunting novel that we named a Best Book of the Month when it published in 2015.
The Painter by Peter Heller
“I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.”
A Best Book of the Month in 2014, Heller's novel is a punch to the gut about fly fishing, painting, violence, and the reconciliation of one man's actions and the hurt that surrounds him in the landscape of the outlaw west. Humanity is full of contradictions about expectations and behavior, and the opening line of The Painter encapsulates exactly that.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
“History has failed us, but no matter.”
Min Jin Lee's Pachinko is a sprawling epic of a Korean family in Japan during the 20th century as they struggle, prosper and reckon with what it means to belong. A perfect opening that expresses the endurance, fortitude, and adversity that await the characters of Min Jin Lee's bestselling National Book Award Finalist, which was also named a Best Book of the Month (2017).
It is often said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; but what about first lines?
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