We, as readers, expect certain things from certain kinds of books. Is there a detective trying to solve a mystery? We expect answers. Is a young woman moving to the big city for a big-name internship? We expect formative experiences. We assume these tropes will play out because they are so ubiquitous in literature, but reading novels that recycle storylines again and again can also get tiresome. Here, we’ve highlighted five books that subvert or avert major tropes in their respective genres. From serial killers to art theft, check out these titles that challenge dominant literary tropes and, in doing so, make the reader’s experience that much more interesting.
We all know how detective stories work: A crime is committed, someone or something goes missing, and confusion ensues. Enter the detective, the alternately bumbling or meticulous (depending on how the author decides to play it) man or woman who will collect clues and inevitably solve the mystery. Paul Auster subverts this trope in his New York Trilogy, which contains three tales that appear, at first, to be straightforward mysteries: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room. All three more or less evolve from a detective story setup into an examination of language, identity, and the nature of reality. Rather than getting answers, the reader ends the story with more questions. Auster’s New York Trilogy is definitely disorienting, but it’s nice to see an author take a well-known plotline and do something so wonderfully strange with it.
Serial killer books are usually about serial killers. This sounds self-evident, but a closer look at the genre yields numerous books that manage to glamorize the killer and make the victims (often female) no more than bodies in bags. Lauren Beukes doesn’t do this. She’s said that she set out to write a book that focused on the promise and strength of the female victims (who are more than just “victims”), and painted the killer as the monster he really was. In doing so, she averts the trope of the sexy psychopath: We are often drawn to and fascinated by charismatic killers in fiction (see: American Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, etc.), but Beukes refuses to go there. The Shining Girls isn’t quite like any other serial killer thriller out there (and not just because it includes time travel, either). Beukes gets major feminist points for resisting the urge to construct depthless female victims, and building a more complex narrative instead.
Man on the Run
Usually, when art goes missing, someone goes looking for it. Theo Decker’s story in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch is a little different. Theo is the survivor of a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and escapes with a painting: “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius, to serve as a reminder of his life before the devastating loss of his mother. But instead of dodging police and detectives for several hundred pages, Theo is busy embarking on a journey of self-discovery (and destruction). Theo’s teens and twenties are driven by the day he took the painting, but have very little to do with the logistics of hiding it from the authorities. Tartt’s novel is about the value of art beyond any quantitative measure: She sets up the theft, but then uses it to tell the reader an unexpected story about loss that is bigger in scale and more resonant.
If You Can Make It There, You’ll Make It Anywhere
It was the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and Esther Greenwood was moving to the big city to pursue her dreams. This is a familiar story: The girl from somewhere else moves to New York—or a similarly large, glamorous city—to work hard, find love, and make friendships that last a lifetime. Falling in love with New York is a well-documented phenomenon (just ask Joan Didion), but there is considerably less literature about those who find New York thoroughly ordinary. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Esther has a prestigious internship, but she’s subsequently denied admission to a writing program she hoped to attend, at which point she sinks into a deep depression. New York doesn’t substantially improve Esther’s life, but it doesn’t exactly chew her up and spit her out, either (another trope). Plath sets up the expectation that the city will have some sort of impact on Esther’s trajectory as a human being. But instead it’s the metaphorical bell jar, not the Big Apple, that drives Esther’s journey.
Picture this: You start reading a book about three best friends at boarding school. Two are male, and one is female. All three are romantically interested in members of the opposite sex. It’s a familiar setup, and usually the result is an inevitable love triangle: The two males compete for the attention of the female, and the resulting tension dictates the group dynamic for the duration of the friendship. J.K Rowling, however, resists going down this path in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and instead averts the all-too-familiar YA love triangle trope. Ron and Hermione fall in love eventually, but Harry never competes for her romantic attention. Stranger still, the budding love between Ron and Hermione does nothing to derail the Three Musketeers vibe the trio has going on. We like this. Rowling writes a story that gives Harry, Ron, and Hermione a little more credit for being individuals who can successfully navigate complex interpersonal relationships.