If asked to pinpoint when she first fell in love with fiction, I have a writer friend who can recount an epiphanic experience with Faulkner in middle school. Such tales of prodigious reading are not unusual among writers, but alas, my early reading diet consisted of the tabloids I stole from the babysitter and CliffsNotes for the books I was supposed to be reading for school. While one could argue that The National Enquirer is rich with story, there’s no getting around the fact that I was, as a kid, a major slacker in the reading department.
And then one summer I met Nancy Drew. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I encountered Nancy, but I do remember that I was on vacation with my family in Colorado, a few years shy of adolescence. I can remember cracking open my first Nancy Drew in the back of a van, winding up a mountain road. That summer, I read one Nancy Drew book after another, ignoring my assigned summer reading.
What was it about Nancy Drew? I loved the mystery, of course, but looking back it occurs to me that much of the appeal was Nancy herself—a young woman leading a life of adventure, chasing her leads, taking risks. She was smart and unafraid. She was not a supporting character, but the leader, the heroine of her own story. The Phantom of Venice, The Secret of Shadow Ranch, The Mystery at Lilac Inn. That summer, I experienced the thrill of sliding into worlds created on the page.
Many works of fiction are, to put it roughly, about people trying to figure things out. They work to solve the puzzles that surround them, though often the greatest puzzles are the ones that exist within. As an adult, I would find myself drawn to novels with a pronounced sense of mystery: Javier Marías’ Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me or Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye or Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—all read during sweltering summers. While the inner life of Nancy Drew pales in comparison to that of a Marías character, her stories awakened me to a new aspect of the world, the underlayer lurking beneath the day-to-day. After finishing a Nancy Drew mystery, I would start to eye strangers on the street, wondering what secrets they might be keeping. The shadowy corners, the empty alleys, the basements, the attics, the odd details: all these things held new interest.
Last summer, in Baltimore’s Normal’s Books & Music—aka the World’s Best Used Bookstore—I came across a copy of The Hidden Staircase. I was surprised by how slim the book was, by how small and light it felt. Tucked in a remote corner of the bookstore, I began turning the pages. Once again it was summer. I had been writing in a friend’s nearby apartment, engrossed in mysteries of my own. Despite the lackluster prose (it pains me to report that Nancy’s eyes are “dancing” by page 2), I felt the familiar thrill take told. That afternoon, I bought The Hidden Staircase and an early edition of a Thomas Bernhard novel. How’s that for cognitive dissonance, I thought at first, but then I looked at the books stacked on the counter and remembered that, at their core, they were both about people trying to solve the puzzle that is their world.
LAURA VAN DEN BERG is the author of The Isle of Youth. Her debut story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, a finalist for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award, and long-listed for the Story Prize. She lives in the Boston area.