Today I’m sharing a passage from a book that I admire but don’t particularly like (do any of you all have those books?)
John Irving is definitely among the highest echelons of lifelike-character craftsmen. While I don’t particularly like any of his characters, I feel as confident in their existence, while I am reading his work, as I do in the existence of a person sitting next to me on a bus.
In the following passage, from A Prayer for Owen Meanie, Irving describes his protagonist’s mother, Tabitha. The fact that Tabitha is a beautiful woman has been previously established. Now, Irving nudges us deeper into her characterization by describing not just how she looks but how people respond to her presence.
It’s a brilliant touch that sets Irving’s characterization apart from most other writers.
In New Hampshire, when I was a boy, Tabby was a common name for house cats, and there was undeniably a feline quality to my mother—never in the sly or stealthy sense of that word, but in the word’s other catlike qualities: a clean, sleek, self-possessed, strokable quality. […] My mother looked touchable; I was always aware of how much people wanted, or needed, to touch her. I’m not talking only about men, although—even at my age—I was aware of how restlessly men moved their hands in her company. I mean that everyone liked to touch her—and depending on her attitude toward her toucher, my mother’s responses to being touched were feline, too. She could be so chillingly indifferent that the touching would instantly stop; she was well coordinated and surprisingly quick and, like a cat, she could retreat from being touched—she could duck under or dart away from someone’s hand as instinctively as the rest of us can shiver. And she could respond in that other way that cats can respond, too; she could luxuriate in being touched—she could contort her body quite shamelessly, putting more and more pressure against the toucher’s hand, until (I used to imagine) anyone near enough to her could here her purr.