Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why I Love Novels That Jump Between Past and Present by Pam Jenoff

I noticed the pattern a few years ago – that while I loved reading historical novels, my very favourites were those that jumped back and forth between the present and past, such as Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book. These stories usually shift between present and past (either staying with one period in the past or moving throughout different eras) in alternating chapters and there is almost always an inanimate object, such as a book or painting, that one sees at various points in time and which acts as a continuum between past and present.

My own opportunity to write such a book came about a few years ago when my husband bought me a beautiful antique clock, known as an anniversary clock or 400-day clock (because it only needs to be wound once a year) for our first wedding anniversary. Looking at the century-old timepiece, I became intrigued with the history of the clock: Where had it been over the years? What kinds of things had it seen? And so I began fashioning a history for the clock of places and events throughout 20th century of Europe. To hold it all together, I gave the book a present day story of an elderly man accused of collaborating with the Nazis, who refuses to help with his own defence but claims that a missing antique clock holds all the answers. The result was The Things We Cherished. It was a joy to finally write the kind of book I most love to read and while I’m proud of my earlier books, including the historical ones (Kommandant’s Girl) and more modern (The Officer’s Lover), I must admit that I have a special affinity for this latest, hybrid tome.

There are so many reasons that I love reading – and writing – books that shift between past and present. First, they allow me to time travel. I can experience different periods in the past and learn about various eras. I can visit the lives of many different characters and hear their voices, enjoying many stories in one. And it doesn’t stop there – I can read a compelling present day story, with all of the complexities of modern life and relationships, while enjoying the historical bits. I don’t have to choose – I can have my cake and eat it too!

I also love books that travel between past and present because the break in each respective story to shift to the other propels me through the pages. It’s almost like awakening from a dream too soon and desperately wanting to go back to sleep to resume it – I have to keep reading to get back to the other story. (And in a really good book of this sort, both storylines will be equally compelling, so that I can’t wait to read both.)

As I mentioned before, most of these types of books seem to have an object that appears in the various past and present chapters. The object becomes a character in its own right, a kind of “witness” to history and a narrator to accompany the reader. As with my own clock, I love finding out where the object has been, revealing its unique history in an Antiques Roadshow sort of way. (And yes, even as the writer, the story does reveal things to me I hadn’t consciously known!) These past-and-present, object-driven stories are fertile grounds for mystery and intrigue, which can be unravelled through the object and its history.

Finally, I love stories that jump between past and present because, by showing people in different times and circumstances, they also allow the reader to draw parallels in characters’ experiences and explore timeless themes such as love, friendship, choice, betrayal, consequence and redemption. Perhaps that universality across the ages is at the heart of what makes the very concept of time travel so appealing.


To learn more about Pam Jenoff and her novels, don't forget to visit her website: http://www.pamjenoff.com/


  1. Thank you for a most interesting post and for the link as well.

  2. Oh, I do so agree - I find that in weaving together two different periods they illuminate each other. And the experience of reading is richer than it could ever be with either story on its own. You can explore things about being human across time, in a way you never can if you're only in a single period.

  3. Love your blog name and header.

    Stopping by to take a look around.




  4. I enjoyed reading your reasons for enjoying the books that move from past to present and back again. So many people cannot stand the use of that device, but I do not mind. As far as I'm concerned, its two stories for the cost of one. (-;
    I'm intrigued by your story written because of the clock. Looks good!

    Thanks for posting!

  5. I'm a huge fan of Pam Jenoff so it's nice to hear from her :)

  6. The Things We Cherished is a love story, intrigue, suspense, historical content and a modern twist all wrapped into one beautifully constructed package.

  7. Fantastic post. You definitely deserve the award for best historical fiction. You have an Outstanding blog.

  8. Love your comment about drawing parallels between present day and historical periods. So true.