Thousands of years ago, a Chinese philosopher wrote about waking from a dream in which he was a butterfly. Upon waking, he wasn’t sure if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. This puzzle is a good introduction to Sulari Gentill’s Crossing the Lines, in which two writers get tangled up each others’ stories, each believing that they are the real author and that the other is just the main character of their next novel. After a few chapters, it’s hard to know which of the authors is real and which is just a figment of imagination.
There are two interleaved plots in Crossing the Lines. In one, Edward McGinnity is a writer of sad literary novels who pines for a woman who married another man. For his new novel, he invents a crime writer, Madeleine d’Leon, who is having trouble with her marriage. Like his other novels, this new one will explore the small events of a life and how those events can grow so large they become psychologically devastating.
In the other plot thread, Madeleine d’Leon is taking a break from her popular historical mysteries to write something a bit more challenging. She invents an author, Edward McGinnity, who becomes involved in a criminal investigation when an art critic is killed at an exhibition of the object of his affection’s art. Big, dangerous events keep intruding on his previously quiet, introspective life until he has no choice but to turn detective to keep himself out of jail.
Each chapter of Crossing the Lines will start with either Madeleine or Edward, then morph into the other’s story as each author gets to work on the next part of their novels. I was hugely entertained by the way they share a literary agent or little in-jokes they put into their tales. Both of them regret the need to introduce unpleasant plot elements to move their novels along. Madeleine, for example, feels bad about the thugs she sends to beat up Edward. Edward prods Madeleine to confront her marriage and her miscarriages. After a while, though, the two plots bleed so far into each other that both authors begin a reality-bending relationship with each other.
Crossing the Lines is a new entry in a small sub-genre of metafiction in which we not only see writers at their craft but also see lines between reality and fiction blend so far that the fourth wall is just a distant speck in the rearview mirror. I love novels that break that wall, like Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox, and Gordon McAlpine’s Woman with a Blue Pencil. Some readers might not like it when that barrier gets demolished because it ruins the illusion. Personally, I feel that novels like this—where characters step out of their stories—let me imagine that characters have lives outside of their tales and that the stories continue after I finish the last page. I adored Crossing the Lines.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 1 August 2017.