Writing in Series

I kicked off January by reading MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood and Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Each book is the third in a series, each released 10 years after the first book in the series. Among other things, these works got me thinking about the reason for writing in a series and what a third book should do.

I remember really enjoying Oryx and Crake and really enjoying The Year of the Flood. The second was set in the world created by the first, but with a new set of characters providing a very different perspective. So I was looking forward to MaddAddam, hoping it would provide another angle. It both does and doesn’t. The set of characters is the same as in The Year of the Flood, but the main plot is actually very thin, short enough that it could have been a short story. Instead, the bulk and strength of the book is in a series of remembrances. But I don’t really understand, then, why it wasn’t simply written as a prequel. Overall, I suppose MaddAddam contributed to our understanding of the setting, but it wasn’t clear why that was necessary.

On the other hand, while Gilead ranks as one of my all-time favorite books, I was sorely disappointed by the Home, the second book in the series. Even more than MaddAddam, I could not figure out why Robinson felt compelled to write that book. It seemed to capture none of the same feeling as the first and was much closer to Housekeeping, her first novel – which I never could finish. She took as her central character of the second book someone who was entirely peripheral to the first book and unconnected to any of the mysteries that drove that plot.

This third book, Lila, was a wonderful departure – or return, really, to both the tone and plot of the first. The narrator is the wife of John Ames, narrator of Gilead. She’s something of a mystery in the first book, one left unsolved (or unrevealed) because of the way Gilead is structured – as a series of letters John is writing to his young son. Because he expects that the Lila will be around with the boy for years, and out of respect for her right to tell her own story, John doesn’t record his wife’s story or how she came to show up in town. This, along with the return to tone and theme, make Lila a wonderfully satisfying sequel to Gilead.

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