My Favorite Opening Sentences of 2014

A collection of opening lines that stood out to me among the books I read this year: Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson “The way Craig Ralston found out that his old high school buddy Jimmy Brand was coming back to town was that Jimmy’s mother had called him for help.”

Ron Carlson's stories use a direct style to deal with small communities, and I like the way this opening sets a decent tone, neither brisk nor leisurely, and also introduces some of the key dynamics (friendship, reunion, helping others) that will define the story.

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

How could you not want to read what comes next?

Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain “It was October, and the leaves of the oaks around the language school had turned gold and were batting light into its tall windows.”

Crain's dense, ambling novel is all about texture and place, much more so than plot or action. Here we get time and place and vibe, all in one.

My Struggle (Book One), Karl Ove Knausgaard “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.”

The first of Knausgaard's six-volume meditation on life and loss begins with a treatise on the physical processes of death before transitioning to the emotional battles of his youth. This is just a beautiful, poetic way to begin.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York.”

A great opening in part because Smith is going to spend most of the novel proving how untrue it is. Everything looks serene from the outside, but for the lower-class denizens of Brooklyn at the turn of the century, life was endless torment.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North “The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996.”

Another catchy genre opener that speeds the reader right into the story.

Zone One, Colson Whitehead “He always wanted to live in New York.”

Whitehead's novel is fantastic, and the opening lays out the wishful thinking of the protagonist that will come to be questioned and mourned as the novel goes on.

Lost Horizon, James Hilton “Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who have met again as men and found themselves with less in common than they had believed they had.”

A genteel and cold way to set the scene and introduce ideas of longing and aging that will define the book's central story, about Shangri-La and man's endless quest to return to a place he feels is better than the one he's in.

A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley “At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road.”

Smiley's retelling of King Lear in the cornfields of Iowa is stunning and heartrending for many reasons, not least of which is the way it deftly portrays what feels to the participants like an epic story even as it underscores that this kind of thing happens to people everywhere. The emotions and actions feel earth-shattering to those involved, but it's all taking place on a patch of land you'd miss if you blinked.