“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.”


Being read by Susan Howatch novels

The best books are the ones that read you more than you read them.

That is how I feel about the English novelist Susan Howatch’s novels, particularly her Starbridge series (here’s a chronological list of her Starbridge series that I posted on Amazon several years ago).

It is also why I’ve read through the series three times and will re-read it again this summer. There aren’t any other works of fiction that I revisit in this way.

The last time I re-read the series I finished the last novel in a tiny cabin on Lake Michigan, shivering under the covers because it’s always freaking cold on Lake Michigan, even in the summer, and I was in the throes of the worst allergy attack of my life, as the buildup of dust and mold in the cabin from the winter was too much. The Claritins and Benadryls I popped like candy didn’t bring even the merest edge of relief, but even in that state Howatch’s storytelling kept me riveted.

The Starbridge series is a fictionalized account of some of the main players in the Church of England in the mid 20th century. That probably sounds like it would be a snooze, but it’s not.

For example, if I were to write a six word story of the first book in the series, Glittering Images, it would be: Bishop or whore? Hard to tell.

Scandals involving bishops are one of life’s constants, so it gives  Howatch plenty of material to work from. The other day I read a comment thread on a blog in which someone said it’s better to be a whore than a bishop, because being a bishop has a corrosive affect on one’s personality and at least a whore is honest about what she does. There’s some wisdom in that. Power is corrupting.

Another six word story for the book could be: Image was everything. Until it wasn’t.

She uses psychology and theology to strip down the characters and get past their glittering images. As one Amazon reviewer said, reading the book was like being in her own counseling session. Another reviewer said, “With elements that would appeal to those with an interest in mystery, romance, Jungian psychology, or the spiritual life, this volume will fit well on many and diverse readers’ shelves.”

This article by Charles Howard goes into more detail about Glittering Images and how it deserves a place of prominence on his university office book shelf over his academic tomes.  I also like how he ties it in to helping students find their true identity and vocation, which is timely for me as my oldest daughter graduates high school in a week.

Throughout the series you meet a variety of characters, not just clergy. There’s an atheist lawyer, a gay prostitute, a lonely single female cook who attaches herself to the leader of a healing center, which is operated by social workers, psychologists and a priest. And many more characters.

The occult, ghosts and poltergeist activity are featured in one book. A main theme throughout seems to be that healing is a process and the reader can usually identify with at least one of the struggles a character is going through.

Much to my dismay I had heard rumors over the past few years that Howatch isn’t going to write again. This post, including the comments section, confirms that. Alas. It also gives a nice summary of each of the Starbridge books. So if you’re looking for some books to read you, there you go.