What I learned from binge-reading Louise Penny

Yep, I admit it: sometimes I am a binge-reader. Every now and then, I’ll read a book by an author and be intrigued enough by the characters and/or writing style to read another. And then another and then yet another, ignoring all other authors, until I’ve read everything I can read by that one person.

Back in May, several friends happened to recommend Louise Penny to me. So I picked up “A Trick of the Light” from the library but didn’t finish it, in part because it felt a little like I was coming into a much bigger story mid-way in. So I went back to the very beginning and started her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series with the very first one, “Still Life.” After I finished that book, I read the next one in the series and then the next and then the next one after that.

I just spent a week at the beach (the Outer Banks, heaven on earth) and found myself reading and reading and reading Louise Penny’s books on my Kindle. I couldn’t put them down, especially the last several in the series. I was close to obsessed. (It’s true!) And it was all because of Jean Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s second in command.

Now, no spoiler alerts needed here: I will not reveal any major plot elements to you! But Jean Guy’s character—which was interesting and intriguing to me from the beginning, perhaps because I lived in France once and know, a little at least, the Francophone personality—became ever more complex as the series evolved. Even as I read about Chief Inspector Gamache’s investigations, his thoughtful pursuit of clues, his ability to zero in on the killer, I’d find myself thinking about Jean Guy, especially during the last few books of the series. I almost felt like shouting at times, “But where is Jean Guy? How is he doing?! Please tell me he’s okay!” I kept turning the pages, not just to learn who the murderer was but also to find out what was going on with Jean Guy. I wanted—no, I needed to know!

This entire binge-read experience really brought home the lessons from an online course I took earlier this year through Sisters in Crime called “Adding Emotional Intensity to Your Writing.” (A great course, by the way, and one I heartily recommend if you are a SinC member.) On our drive home from the beach today, I found myself thinking about why it was that I was so sucked into Jean Guy’s life, into what was happening to him, into how he was responding to it. After all, he’s a fictional character; why should I care? And I did care.

I cared because Jean-Guy was Everyman. He takes his job seriously and tries to do his best, even though he sometimes fails. He has his weaknesses, like a bit of a temper and a touch of vanity and more than a little impatience at times even with Gamache’s patient and methodical approach. He doesn’t always understand why Gamache does what he does, but tries to support and defend him and protect him from others he considers unworthy or untrustworthy. He is respectful and loyal to his boss although he sometimes falls victim to manipulation by others, including one particularly evil antagonist. In sum, Jean Guy is you and me and just about everyone I know. He’s human and lets it show.

I also cared because of Jean Guy’s emotions. He has dreams and desires and disappointments, and we, the readers, know about them and how they affect his life. He has great joys and great sorrows, keen frustrations and exhilarating highs, and those all come through on the page. There are times when he suffers, deeply even, and I felt that pain with him. Felt it because the pain and the sorrow—all his emotions, in fact—were very real and very realistic, things I’ve felt myself over the years. And yes, I did at times have to remind myself, wait a minute here, he’s a fictional character! He isn’t real! He isn’t, but those emotions and those feelings were and are real to me. They resonated.

Finally, I cared because others in the novels cared, sometimes deeply, about what happened to Jean Guy. He touched other lives and others responded to him, sometimes positively and sometimes in a negative way. But he was not a neutral force, a character who floats in and out, inspiring nothing, changing nothing, influencing nothing. Take Jean Guy out of those books and he leaves a big gap, a hole, an emptiness even. Gamache isn’t fully Gamache without Jean Guy by his side, a man Gamache trusts and loves as a son. And it is Gamache’s love for Jean Guy that spurs him to action at key points, including times of great disappointment and even great concern and fear for Jean Guy, something I (and, I suspect, everyone) can relate to.

I’m not sure I would have fully grasped all this, had I not had the chance to read these books one after another, day after day, evening after evening, thanks to being on our mid-summer beach vacation. After all, the Day Job (you know, the one that actually pays the bills and keeps food on the table, darn it!) intervenes and keeps me from reading and writing as much as I’d like. But I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to do so much binge-reading, a total immersion in Louise Penny and Chief Inspector Gamache—and Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir who remains my favorite character.

And now, what next? Well, first of all, I’m going to re-read all those same books again, in sequence, to savor them, to follow Gamache but also Jean Guy more closely as they evolve and grow. And I’m going to go through my own book draft with an eye on the emotional side, to make sure my protagonist and the main sub-characters are as fully developed emotionally as they can and should be. Because when others read my book, when they follow my characters, I want them to care as much about them as I care about Jean Guy. What could be better?

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