There are entire books on this subject, but essentially what I look for is a good story well told. Beautiful writing is part of it and this can take on many forms – hence the style of the writers I read often varies. In order to commit the time to read several hundred pages the story must be compelling. I don’t have to “like” the characters, but I have to care about them.
A writer who almost always meets these criteria is Ian McEwan. I recently reread The Children Act and was reminded again of the importance of a good beginning. I think McEwan is brilliant at this. I will never forget the opening scene in Enduring Love when a person is dangling, and ultimately falls, from a hot air balloon. His novel Saturday begins with a man, completely nude, in front of an open window in London watching an airplane plummet from the sky in the middle of the night. Now, years later, those scenes brought to the page with exquisite visual precision still live in my mind.
The Children Act has a comparably engrossing beginning. Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, sips a drink at the end of the day in her London living room. She has just received a shocking announcement from her husband. A few moments later she gets word of a dire family court case that she must decide in a matter of hours.
McEwan brings us into his novel at a high moment of tension and keeps us enthralled on every page with tight beautifully constructed prose. He weaves together the threat in Fiona’s personal life as well as a life changing legal matter. This novel with its astonishing beginning is one I won’t forget.