At a New York City charity reading last August, superstar authors J.K. Rowling and Stephen King were asked which five of their own literary characters they'd like to invite to dinner.
"Harry Potter" author Rowling had no trouble choosing. She, like the rest of the world, adores her gang of adolescent witches and wizards.
When it came to King's turn to answer, the full house assembled that night at Radio City Music Hall erupted into laughter. King played up the joke knowingly, with a smirk and amused silence.
Ax -wielding Annie Wilkes from "Misery"? Depressive Dolores Claiborne? Bloodthirsty prom queen Carrie White? Gunslinger Roland Deschain from the "Dark Tower" series? Or worse, Pennywise the Clown from "It"?
Nah. King is better off dining solo.
Until now. In his latest novel, "Lisey's Story," King has finally created an average, everyday character you wouldn't mind breaking bread with.
Lisey ("rhymes with CeeCee") Landon is the widow of famous writer Scott Landon, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner.
When the story begins, two years after her husband's death, Lisey is still reeling. She's trying to clean out Scott's study, cope with her grief, and fend off demands for his unpublished manuscripts from grabby archivists.
It's pretty banal stuff at first. But this is a King novel, and the story soon turns to the supernatural.
First, Lisey's catatonic sister, Amanda, starts speaking in Scott's voice. Then, a dangerous and mysterious stalker enters Lisey's world, and she travels to an alternate, ominous fantasy world called "Boo'ya Moon," a place where her husband fled to escape a violent childhood.
But the meat of the book is the love story between Lisey and Scott, and like any good marriage there isn't much room within its confines for anyone else.
Most of the time, we feel stuck as outside observers on King's long-winded flights of fancy. It's much like paging slowly through someone else's photo albums chronicling a full, but not always interesting, life.
Lisey and Scott share an intimate, secret language of sorts in their constant flashbacks -- a rich, rhythmic stew of running dialogue that comes across as part baby-talk, part song lyric. There is "bad-gunky," referring to inherited Landon insanity, and "babyluv," his pet name for her. It alternates between charming and tedious, wearing thin at the novel's end.
Lisey is thoughtful and likable -- but her insular, unaccomplished life (writing "grocery lists, not novels," as she describes herself) makes her seem somewhat washed-out compared to her more fascinating dead husband. She has spent her adult life reflecting Scott's glory, but creating little of her own. Her nurturing spirit is admirable, but it's also somewhat dull, and it can be hard to get attached to her as a heroine. (Meg Wolitzer's "The Wife," a sharper take on the woman-behind-the-successful-writer, is a far more compelling character study.)
King has said "Lisey's Story" is rooted in two brushes with his own mortality -- a 1999 accident that almost killed him and a 2003 bout with pneumonia that required a month of hospitalization. He's also admitted to a late-in-life infatuation with poetry and language as an art form, not simply words-as-fuel to feed the engine of his blockbuster horror tales.
It's no secret in the industry that this novel is particularly close to King's heart. Three years in the writing, it is dedicated to his own beloved wife, novelist Tabitha King. He also pays homage in an afterword to University of Maine Professor Burton Hatlen, who in 1968, "showed me the way to the pool, which he called the language-pool, the myth-pool, where we all go down to drink."
Because King clearly loves this book, longtime fans will want to love it, too. It's not always easy, though.
Shelve all expectations that "Lisey's Story" will resemble King's commercially successful horror tales. It's a meandering, fantastical love story, with a handful of gross-out moments, that allows King to stretch and scratch a literary itch. It's not the thrill ride some of us may have hoped for, but there is beauty and depth in King's gentle journey -- if we are patient enough to join him on it.
Erica Noonan can be reached at email@example.com.