“We know so little about even those who are closest to us. We know so litle of what really goes on in other people’s lives.” – Ginerva in Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch

I went on the other day about Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series of novels, but should also mention that she wrote many books prior to Starbridge.

Until recently, I had never read any of those books, for fear they wouldn’t be as substantive and enthralling, and I didn’t want to be disillusioned. I finally manned up and started reading Wheel of Fortune last week, as many Howatch fans consider this to be her best pre-Starbridge novel.

Her earliest works are “gothic” novels, followed by the family sagas such as Wheel of Fortune. There’s a clear demarcation between these works and the Starbridge series because, according to her Wikipedia page:

Howatch found herself “rich, successful, and living exactly where I wanted to live,” but feeling a spiritual emptiness which she ascribed to “trying to hold my divided self together” and questioning her life and what she should do with it…

She experienced a spiritual epiphany, and concluded that she should continue to write novels, but to “set forth my discoveries in the light of faith, no matter how feeble and inadequate my beginner’s faith was.”

The Starbridge novels sprang from that and this is why they feature clerical figures, but, make no mistake, they don’t at all fit into the Christian fiction category in the Family Bookstore sense of the term and most readers of that sort of fiction would be put off by these novels.

Anyway, back to Wheel of Fortune, which could just as easily be called Wheel of Misfortune, as it details the trials of a rich family during the span of a few generations. It’s a 1000 page novel and I didn’t notice until I was about 20 pages in that the copy I was reading was volume 2 of that novel and began on page 474. Oops. That says something about Howatch’s storytelling, that I was able to begin reading halfway through and immediately be swept away by the story.

A Facebook friend posted this Flannery O’Connor quote yesterday and I thought it tied in well with Howatch:

There is something in us as story-tellers that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance of restoration. The reader looks for this motion, and rightly so, but he has forgotten the cost of it. His sense of evil is deluded or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. He has forgotten the cost of truth, even in fiction.

Howatch tells the Wheel of Fortune story from the perspective of several characters. You’ll be reading along and then suddenly it will be another character’s turn to pick up the story where the previous character left off and you’ll be all, “No! I was having fun reading from this character’s perspective!” Inevitably the next character is someone who was portrayed negatively by the previous character and, inevitably, when you start seeing the story from their own perspective, you’ll start liking them and be surprised at how insightful, charming and empathetic that character can be, even though the previous character may have portrayed them negatively.

The quote I put at the top of this post from the Wheel of Fortune reflects this and is what I consider to be the main theme of the novel: “We know so little about even those who are closest to us. We know so little of what really goes on in other people’s lives.”


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