Favorite first lines from 2020 fall novels

Al Woodworth on July 22, 2020
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Favorite first lines from 2020 fall novels

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.”

For some novelists, the first sentence is everything. In an interview with The Atlantic Stephen King once remarked: “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.” Peter Heller’s approach is to “start with a first line and let it rip”—saying, in essence, that there is no way of knowing what will come next in the writing process except to begin. Conversely, Min Jin Lee deploys her first lines “to serve as a thesis statement.”

There is nothing like the excitement of a first line, so we have pulled a few of our favorites from novels publishing this fall.

These openers stopped us in our tracks and made us immediately sit down and read. (Is there any better feeling?) They are intriguing, funny, off-kilter (in the best way) and most definitely caught our attention. We hope they catch yours.


The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood

“I killed Mikey.

It sounds worse than it actually was. You have to understand that I didn’t kill Mikey because I wanted to do it. I killed him because God told me to do it.

From the opening line it's clear why best-selling author Gary Shteyngart called The Bad Muslim Discount ”one of the bravest and most eye-opening novels of the year.” Even the title nods at the irreverent and bold story that Syed M. Masood tells about two families, one from Pakistan the other from Iraq, and their convergence in San Francisco in 2016.


The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

“When Lyssa was seven, her mother took her to see the movie where the mermaid wants legs, and when it ended Lyssa shook her head and squinted at the prince and said, Why would she leave her family for that?, which for years contributed to the prevailing belief that she was sentimental or softhearted, when in fact she just knew a bad trade when she saw one.”

What a punch line. I love this opening and how it sets the stage for seven stories that deal with the absurdities of race in America. Leave it to the award-winning Danielle Evans to bring up Ariel from The Little Mermaid. As Rebecca Makkai raved: “Danielle Evans is a stone-cold genius, in possession of both a merciless eye and a merciful heart.”


Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

A bank robbery. A hostage drama. A stairwell full of police officers on their way to storm an apartment. It was easy to get to this point, much easier than you might think. All it took was one single really bad idea.

Fredrik Backman is the best-selling novelist of A Man Called Ove, Beartown and other tear-jerking, life-affirming page-turners. In his latest, he sets up the world's worst bank robber with the world's worst hostages and the result is a pitch-perfect, humorous story of community and connection. It's trademark Backman. Make yourself a sandwich, and settle in.


Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-sized bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time, when I was child and then again when I was a graduate student.”

“Like a virus” might be a bit too close to home right now, but Yaa Gyasi's novel of a grad student determined to understand the scientific basis of the suffering all around her is timeless. When her depressed mother moves in with her, she returns to the memories of her childhood and yearns for the faith she once had. A powerful, beautifully written novel.


White Ivy by Susie Yang

Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her. Maybe that was the problem. No one ever suspected—and that made her reckless.

Ivy Lin will do anything for the affections of a certain classmate and judging by the description above, she obviously does. It gets her in hot water and will come back and haunt her years later. A twisty thriller of secrets, thievery, and the possibility of love.


Bestiary by K-Ming Chang

Ba doesn’t know where he buried the gold. Ma chases him around and beats him with her soup ladle. You’ve never been to a funeral, but this is what it looks like: four of us in the backyard, digging where our shadows have died.

So begins K-Ming Chang's dream-like and poetic novel of three Taiwanese women haunted by their ancestors. By turns comic and devastating, mythic and grounded, Bestiary exalts the legacy of Asian American women—their voices, experiences, and dreams.


The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

“Killing someone is easy. Hiding the body, now, that's usually the hard part. That's how you get caught.

Who would have ever thought a group of septuagenarian amateur sleuths in a retirement village would be the ones chasing down a murderer? Let me just say, hilarity ensues. Harlan Coben calls this novel: “Funny, clever and compelling.” Kate Atkinson raves: “A little beacon of pleasure in the midst of the gloom…SUCH FUN!” And our own Vannessa Cronin pitches it as "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel meets Midsomer Murders."


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