Particular attention to demonstrating surprise…

Word count: 234 words

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

A great way to improve your writing skills is to emulate the work of others. Here is a paragraph I read recently that I’d happily imitate.

The novel The Hand that First Held Mine, by Maggie O’Farrell, offers a refined look at two related themes: new motherhood and the passage of time. Told from two  perspectives — the late 1950s and modern day — the book examines four seemingly unrelated lives. The plot turns, as you might imagine, on how these lives unexpectedly intersect.

I found O’Farrell’s writing to be sophisticated and often very funny. Here is one my favourite humourous passages:

The effect [of a rattle] on the baby is instantaneous and remarkable. His limbs stiffen, his eyes spring wide, his lips part in a perfect round O. It is as if he’s been studying a manual on how to be a human being with particular attention to the chapter, ‘Demonstrating Surprise’. 

I like the way she pairs painstaking description (the stiffened limbs, the wide-sprung eyes, the parted lips) with a terrific punchline. When my children were little, I was frequently astonished by how they learned to do things without any teaching from me. I appreciate O’Farrell’s suggestion that, perhaps, children are little Dr. Spocks, busy studying their own manuals when we aren’t looking.

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