So there are plenty of books out there that people classify as having a great first line. But I looked over a few lists and one of those reads was a book on my list that I figured I should probably try out as an English major. And that was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
Though most people probably think of A Tale of Two Cities for famous lines, or just something that’s become iconic as a whole. But I couldn’t help but love the simple yet compelling nature of Plath’s first line.
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. “
Again, not overly descriptive or overwhelming, but still enough to possibly inspire curiosity. And I liked that from the start.
The book covers Esther Greenwood’s descent into madness. Between the stress of work and school and her problems with her boyfriend and her mother, Esther has a complicated and messy life at times. As she begins to breakdown the reader comes along with her on her journey.
That’s about the best I can do to summarize. It’s not a really complex plot. So with that in mind I’ll leave it there.
I picked up the book out of duty. I’d seen it on a bunch of lists of books that should be read over your lifetime. I’d also heard it called an American classic and all kinds of other things. And I’d read some of Plath’s poems for my literature classes and knew she was a renowned writer. I also will admit I figured if Kat Stratford is reading it in 10 Things I Hate About You that has to be a good sign, right?
But when I started reading I was immediately surprised by something. With a lot of books I’ve read out of a feeling of obligation, I was thoroughly bored in the beginning. Sometimes my interest would pick up halfway through when the book became more interesting. But most often, I felt like I would never make it to anything better. But with The Bell Jar I was immediately hooked.
The first line drew me in and the simple (and yet simultaneously poetic) prose and unique story really made me want to continue reading. I found the narrator Esther sympathetic and liked her naivety. One of my professors always said an unreliable narrator is like the author and the reader playing catch over the narrators head. And I felt like I had some of that going on during the book, which was fun. I also just really enjoyed Plath’s clear wit. She made me chuckle in places, even if the story did become somber.
I saw someone review it on goodreads with a single star saying it was too depressing. Personally I feel like I’ve read books that were far sadder than this, and I though I felt terrible for Esther and the other characters, I never felt overwhelmed with sorrow over what was happening. Perhaps that’s just my own take though. I think the messages about women and their rights are still relevant today. The treatment Esther goes through is quite outdated, but it’s still interesting to see the struggles of someone who is mentally ill put onto a page, and I greatly admire Plath for being willing to share some of her own experiences. There is a good amount of racism that is somewhat concerning to a modern reader, but I think given the time period it’s at least more understandable.
Overall I’m giving this book full stars. The story is interesting and the writing is my ideal (I already know some of my followers have different opinions on what good writing is, but this is mine). I highly recommend at least trying this book.
What are some of your favorite first lines? What do you think makes a great first line?