One of my favorite things about reading a highly satisfying novel is reaching the final page and experiencing that bittersweet sensation of the story ending, while also having the distinct feeling that somehow, the lives of the characters will continue beyond the pages of the book.
Think for a moment how incredible that is, that someone made you not only believe in the existence of entirely fictional creations, but that you came to care about what happens to them in the futures they do not have because, again, these people are entirely made up.
Sometimes though, years later we get the chance to check in with these characters because a writer decides it’s time for a sequel.
Currently, this is the case with the indelible character of Tracy Flick, in the newly released “Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” having been first brought to life by Tom Perrotta in 1998′s “Election.”
Things are complicated when it comes to Tracy Flick because our image of her is inextricably tied with Reese Witherspoon’s cartoonal in Alexander Payne’s film adaptation of the book. However, Perrotta’s creation is not the same as Payne’s interpretation. The Tracy Flick of both “Election” and “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” is much more sympathetic than the film, primarily because the medium of fiction allows us access to Tracy’s interior in a way that the film cannot match.
I appreciated getting to check in with Tracy nearly a quarter-century after we first met, and I recommend “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” to anyone else with a fondness for the original book, the film or Perrotta’s other novels. And yet, I can’t help but think that the literary sequel is, by design, almost destined to disappoint.
I should be clear about how I’m defining a sequel in this case, and that I think there is a distinction to be made between a “series” and a “sequel.” A series is a group of related books where volumes subsequent to the first one were part of the original design. George R.R. Martin’s “The Song of Ice and Fire” is a series. Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Novels” is also a series.
Saying that “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” is disappointing is not a comment on the quality of Perrotta’s book. I could say the same about Richard Russo’s 2016 follow-up “Everybody’s Fool” to 1993′s “Nobody’s Fool” or Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Again” from 2019, which followed her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge,” from 2008.
In each case, I eagerly dove into the sequels, and even enjoyed them, but I also cannot help but admit — to myself above all — that they did not engender the same depth of connection as the originals.
There are probably lots of reasons for this. For one, the first installments of each of those books are among my all-time favorite reads. The authors set a very high bar that it would be difficult for anyone to clear a second time. For two, I am a different person than I was when I read the originals. The role of specific time, place and personal mindset in how one receives a book is often underrated and overlooked.
But I think the biggest reason for a certain sense of disappointment is that putting down the specifics of a story in a sequel ends the pleasure of imaging the infinite possibilities for a character that we experience at the end of a particular story.
Perhaps there is simply more pleasure in believing that a fictional character is in the world living their lives than in seeing the specifics of what those lives have become, no matter how skillfully those specifics are rendered.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read
1. “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towers
2. “Where are the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens
3. “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid
4. “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd
5. “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller
— Danielle T., Los Angeles
I think collectively these books have sold like 15 million copies, so I’m going to recommend a book that I think deserves that kind of readership, but hasn’t yet achieved it, Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply.”
1. “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene
2. “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Wugh
3. “Atonement” by Ian McEwan
4. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
5. “Inside Story” by Martin Amis
— Lance T., Chicago
A bit of an Anglophile here, which is interesting, and which gives me a rationale for narrowing my choice. I think Lance will enjoy the wit and spirit of David Lodge’s “Changing Places,” and if he enjoys that, there are two more books in Lodge’s campus trilogy, “Small World,” and “Nice Work.”
1. “Sankova” by Chibundu Onuzo
2. “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle
3. “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng
4. “Matrix” by Lauren Groff
5. “People We Meet on Vacation” by Emily Henry
— Diane P., Naperville
If Diane hasn’t already had the pleasure of sinking into the emotional waters of Rebecca Makkai’s “The Great Believers,” she’s in for a treat.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org.