According to critics, the best novels draw readers into the story and create "a willing suspension of disbelief" within us. This means that the writer has created a world and a set of characters so believable that we accept the premise, no matter how unbelievable, without question.
The best writers do this with such consummate skill that we believe, in Kafka's THE METAMORPHOSIS, that a young man can wake up one morning and find himself transformed into a cockroach that thinks. Or that an Iowa farm woman could have an affair with an itinerant photographer, as depicted in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Such is the talent of Stephen King that we accept, without question, the notion that a child can be possessed by the Devil, buried pets can return to life, or that a car can take on a life of its own.
These stories, in the hands of less skillful writers, would find us reading the first chapter, murmuring "This could never happen," to ourselves and then flinging the book across the room wondering all the while why we paid $25.95 for it.
Jacquelyn Mitchard's new book, THE MOST WANTED, is just such a book. On the face of it, the story stretches our credulity to its limits. It concerns Arley, a 14-year-old girl who is married to Dillon Le Grande --- a prisoner with whom she has been corresponding --- and Annie, a lawyer with a women's resource center, who is trying to arrange a conjugal visit for her young client. The plot is not only implausible, it is somewhat offensive, all the more so because Arley's mother consented to the marriage.
"Not because I was in favor of it," the girl's mother says. "People will do what they want, anyhow."
What kind of a mother would allow her 14-year-old daughter to marry a man in prison? Just what kind of man wants to marry a 14-year-old girl? And what happened to Arley to make her decide that marrying this man was her only chance at happiness?
Arley explains some of her feelings near the beginning of the book. She says, "When Dillon came along, he just filled up the sky over me, and I couldn't see around him to good or bad or wise or stupid or anything."
And Dillon, in one of his letters to Arley, tells her, "You must not think this is only the lonesomeness of a captive talking to you. . . . I've had my chances, even in here, to bind a woman to me. But I have not taken them. Arley, I was waiting for you. . . ."
THE MOST WANTED is not a book to be flung against the wall. Mitchard weaves a compelling story of love and pain and loss and hurt. She involves us deeply into the lives of all the characters, and manages to make them both sympathetic and interesting. The story is told, in alternating chapters, by Ann and Arley, and this technique allows us to understand both women.
Make no mistake about it, these are damaged people, but they are also spirited survivors. It is a testament to Mitchard's skill as a writer that she takes a plot worthy of the worst soap opera and turns it into literature.
The Most Wanted