Nourishing Fiction

Book NourishmentI think of books as sustenance. Words nourish an inner place the way a meal fortifies the body. There’s room at the table for all kinds of dishes: appetizers, hearty proteins, sides, desserts. All have a function and touch a particular organ the way all kinds of books fill our needs. Today I want to focus on the essential ingredients, the words, and emphasize the way they promote the health of our fiction, and thus the health of the reader, when they are nourishing.

The following three quotes provide a small flavor of the greater lyricism of the works from which they come. Choosing just one passage in each case was a challenge because I had so many sentences highlighted, underlined, or dog-eared. The words I’ve selected made me pause to consider a new idea, see an approach to a familiar subject in an original way, or absorb a deep realization. These authors remind us, as writers, not to forget the power of language to support character and story.

The Lost Wife, Alyson Richman

The Lost Wife begins at a wedding in the present day when an old man sees an old woman, and realizes she is the woman he married in WWII Prague, before the Nazis tore apart their lives. It shows with devastating contrast the time before and after the war for the Jewish families living in Europe, but also the incredible capacity humanity has for creativity, love, and resilience.

This quote highlights the way words can reveal character and relationships through specific vocabulary and nuance. It gives an alternative to back-story for a character who is an artist, and shows the reader important connections between a mother and a daughter.

“At night, I am tucked in by a mother who tells me to close my eyes. ‘Imagine the color of water,’ she whispers into my ear. Other nights, she suggests the color of ice. On another, the color of snow. I fall asleep to the thoughts of those shades shifting and turning in the light. I teach myself to imagine the varying degrees of blue, the delicate threads of lavender, or the palest dust of white. And in doing so, my dreams are seeded in the mystery of change.” 

No One Is Here Except All of Us, by Ramona Ausubel

Ausubel’s novel is another WWII story, this time set in a remote valley in Romania where a Jewish community reinvents itself for protection against the outside world. In the rewriting of their history, however, a small crack in the foundation leads to tragedy. Ausubel’s voice is original and her historical novel has a fascinating touch of fantasy. 

This quote comes from a scene of intimacy. So often, these encounters in fiction leave the reader more frigid than a cold shower, but Ausubel’s phrasing brings a scene to vivid life.

“Naked, the stranger felt like a specimen, and she wanted the jeweler to examine her, to discover the reason for every warm offering. He wet the dry riverbed of her spine with his mouth, he measured and weighed her breasts in his hands. He made an end-to-end journey.”

Everything Beautiful Began After, by Simon Van Booy

Finally, Everything Beautiful Began After is an explorative, literary novel about a love triangle, an earthquake, and a journey. Like the “timshel” speech in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the rapturous revelations that come at the journey’s end are profound. I can not overstate the brilliance of this novel.

“You must…learn to accept that death is the most sophisticated form of beauty, and the most difficult to accept. From this moment on, you will always be conscious of what you are doing. And any future feeling, whether joy or grief or excitement or regret, will come now with an awareness of its own end—with shadows you never noticed in youth. Variation of feeling will be depth of feeling. And you will appreciate tiny things—and step with the confidence of someone overjoyed to know he is doomed.”

*          *          *

I don’t mean to belabor the food metaphor, but when I read a great book, I can feel the weight of the words in my mouth. I can sense their effect because of a physical response I have once I’ve read them: chills on my skin, a drawing in of breath, the utterance of an ‘ooh’ or ‘ahh.’ Sometimes it takes only a simple passage to remind us what a lengthy craft book strives to impart: employing purposeful language can elevate our fiction to a more satisfying level.

What author or novel nourishes you? I’d love to see some “nourishing” quotes.



About Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck (@ErikaRobuck) self-published her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING. Penguin Random House published her subsequent novels, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, CALL ME ZELDA, FALLEN BEAUTY, and GRAND CENTRAL, a collaborative short story anthology. Her forthcoming novel THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE releases in May of 2015. Erika writes about and reviews historical fiction at her blog, Muse, and is a contributor to fiction blog, Writer Unboxed. She is also a member of the Historical Novel, Hemingway, Millay, and Hawthorne Societies.


  1. says

    I love all of those, Erika – but especially the last.

    It’s so seldom that you read something that makes you stop and think that the author reached inside your head, pulled together your scattered thoughts and stated them in ways you didn’t know you knew, until you read the words.

    Pat Conroy and Jodi Picoult both do that to me.

  2. says

    Beautiful post, Erika! Words artfully put together are indeed the bread of life to writers and readers. Thank you for reminding us of this with the passages you quoted. In our modern rush-about world, the lyrical is too often pushed aside with the notion that it hampers the commercial aspect or in favor of expediency. A beautifully turned phrase can have the same effect on one as magnificent music, if we only take the time to listen.

    • says

      Thank you, Linda. I love finding fiction written recently that has a beautiful balance of words and story. Another recent favorite is BEAUTIFUL RUINS.

  3. says

    “Alone in his flat, Marco constructs tiny rooms from scraps of paper. Hallways and doors crafted from pages of books and bits of blueprint, pieces of wallpaper and fragments of letters.

    He composes chambers that lead into others that Celia has created. Stairs that wind around her halls.”

    From one of my favorite books…THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern.

    I love this passage not only for how lovely it is but for the cadence of the words and the picture it makes in my mind. It so perfectly illustrates how Marco feels about Celia.

      • says

        Lovely post! I, too, often find myself oooing and aaaahhing over certain phrases, images, words. One of my favorite things is sensual descriptions. I loved The Night Circus! It was beautifully crafted and I drooled my way through all of the gorgeous phrases.

  4. `Peggy Foster says

    Thank you Erika for this post. You are right that books are nourishing for the writer like food is for all of us. Books are nourishing in so many ways, including that they can give authors and readers alike hope and comfort when times are tough.

    • says

      That is so true, Peggy. I think fiction is important for fostering empathy in the reader, and for providing companionship that reflects reader struggles.

  5. says

    Wow. These are the words that have made me fall in love with books over and over and painfully and beautifully.
    My current two favorites to fit the bill:
    Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore
    The Hummingbird’s Daughter (My current crush).
    Barbara DeShong

  6. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Thanks for this wonderful way to start the day.

    “The taste for books was an early one. As a child he was sometimes found at midnight by a page still reading. They took his taper away, and he bred glow-worms to serve his purpose. They took the glow-worms away and he almost burnt the house down with a tinder.”

    –Virginia Woolf, Orlando

  7. says

    Amazing post, Erika. I’ve heard writers complain that writing others’ work interferes with their own voices, but I’ve experienced the opposite. The more beautiful fiction I read, the easier my own writing becomes. I try to keep one day a week free for only reading–and surprisingly, I get more good ideas for my own work on that one day than any other!

    One novel that has nourished me in the past week is Eleanor Henderson’s incredible TEN THOUSAND SAINTS. The opening paragraph turns two scraggly teenaged boys into beautiful beings:

    “Is it dreamed?” Jude asked Teddy. “Or dreamt?”
    Beneath the stadium seats of the football field, on the last morning of 1987 and the last morning of Teddy’s life, the two boys lay side by side, a pair of snow angels bundled in thrift-store parkas. If you were to spy them from above, between the slats of the bleachers—or smoking behind the school gym, or sliding their skateboards down the stone wall by the lake—you might confuse one for the other. But Teddy was the dark-haired one, Jude the redhead. Teddy wore opalescent, fat-tonged Air Jordans, both toes bandaged with duct tape, and dangling from a cord around his neck, a New York City subway token, like a golden quarter . . .
    “Either,” said Teddy.

  8. pat schlesinger says

    I just listened to the audible version of “The Storyteller” by Jodi Picoult. For hours I was mesmerized by the story itself, its lyricism, its characters and the intricate weaving of…well, everything. The writing is in a class by itself.

  9. says

    All of these passages were beautiful! It makes me realize how carefully we must choose our words, how close we have to pay attention to what we’re conveying… and what a beautiful challenge that is!

    I love Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the court of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Here Cromwell observes Jane Seymour who is destined to be Henry’s third wife:

    “Jane is facing front, like a sentry. The clouds have blown away overnight. We may have one more fine day. The early sun touches the fields, rosy. Night vapours disperse. The forms of trees swim in particularity. The house is waking up. Unstalled horses tread and whinny. A back door slams. Footsteps creak above them. Jane hardly seems to breathe. No rise and fall discernible, of that flat bosom. He feels he should walk backwards, withdraw, fade back into the night, and leave her here in the moment she occupies: looking out into England.”

    Visceral – I can feel this scene going on.

  10. says

    I feel the same way. You know you’ve read something powerful when it hits you in the soul. I know you are focusing on fiction in this post but recently read a memoir that had me nodding and rereading passages more times than I can count. The book was A Gift of an Ordinary Day by Katrina Kenison and she write as a mother and woman in the midst of her life. One quote that stuck with me was:

    “When we focus on what is good and beautiful in someone, whether or not we think they deserve it, the good and beautiful are strengthened merely by the light of our attention.”

    The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski, a fiction novel I recently read, was mesmerizing in the way she described a world of a mute boy with larger than life hearing. I loved it.