I read a lot of books every year. Some are new, and some are re-reads. I don’t re-read them because I’ve forgotten them. I re-read because it’s like visiting an old friend. If I’m re-reading a book, it’s most often because I remember it, and remembered how much I loved it.
So, what exactly makes for a memorable book?
It has something different. I went through a time when I read a ton of romance novels, and many of them were the same. Romance novels, in general, have a pretty predictable structure. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, or just have sparks, insurmountable obstacle happens, obstacle is surmounted against all odds, happily ever after. A romance novel doesn’t have to deviate from that recipe in order to be good. But it does have to bring a more interesting conflict than the normal one. Sign of Seven trilogy, by Nora Roberts comes to mind. It’s romance mixed with paranormal happenings. If you haven’t read it, but you like romance and big evil bad guys, check it out.
Characters have unique traits. I love characters with unique traits. In The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the main character is antisocial and communicates through flowers. In Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts, Novalee is superstitious about 7s. The thing about unique traits, though, is that they can’t be for no reason and have no impact on the story. Character traits have to mean something, or else they fade into nothingness in my memory. Not to mention, meaningless quirks can irritate me into abandoning the book.
The characters make me care about them. Not all characters have to be likable, and not everyone has to be a hero, but I have to be drawn into the story and care what happens, otherwise I’m indifferent. When I’m indifferent to a character and story, I end up putting the book back down. Holden Caulfield from the Catcher in the Rye is an example, as are Amy and Nick Dunne from Gone Girl. Sure, they start off as likable, but I quickly came to hate them both. It didn’t stop me from reading. I wanted to know what happened!
It gets an emotional reaction. This one is related to the last one, but if a book makes me laugh or cry, I’ll remember it. I cry every single time I read Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. I’ve reread that book so many times over the last 20 (or so) years, but it gets me every time, just like it did the first time. At least I know to have tissues.
But my emotions aren’t manipulated, and they don’t come cheap. If I’m going to invest in a character, I want the sense that the author is invested in the character too. If bad things are going to happen to a character, I want to know who the character is, if you expect me to care. In The Martian, by Andy Weir, I was really rooting for Mark Watney to get off Mars. My heart raced every time something bad happened to him, and I was genuinely excited when he was finally rescued. I wouldn’t have been so invested if Mark had just rolled over and died, or passively waited to be rescued. He worked for the victory, so I happily cheered him on.
The title makes sense. This one isn’t a deal breaker, but I remember a book so much better if the title actually relates to the book in a meaningful/ memorable way. The Night Circus is clearly and unambiguously related to the plot. Bonus points because it’s title that would make me want to read the book.
What makes a book memorable to you? Do you re-read?