THE BLOG
11/08/2013 12:45 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Déjà Vu Can Happen to You

Ever read something in a novel and feel you've read something similar in a novel by a different author? I'm not talking about plagiarism, but a variation on a scene or theme. After all, few literary works are so original that they don't at least occasionally echo other fictional offerings.

I noticed this with three novels I read last month -- Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast, Jim Harrison's Revenge and Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters.

The Mosquito Coast (1982), about a brilliant/abrasive/absurdly confident Massachusetts man who drags his family to live in the Central American jungle, made me think of how a Georgia man drags his family to Africa in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible (1998). As in most "echo cases," the similarity is just that -- similar, not redundant. For instance, the nasty Nathan Price in Kingsolver's novel is a racist missionary, while Allie Fox in Theroux's book is an anti-American-consumerism guy who -- in his saner, less-cruel moments -- has a bit more humanity than Nathan.

Revenge -- the first of Harrison's trilogy of novellas that includes Legends of the Fall -- is the story of an affair between an employee (Cochran) and the wife (Miryea) of his employer (Tibey). When Tibey discovers the liaison, the results are catastrophic. Revenge (1979) reminded me of All the Pretty Horses (1992), the first of another bleak threesome: the Cormac McCarthy books known as The Border Trilogy. In Horses, John Grady Cole sleeps with the daughter (Alejandra) of a ranch owner for whom he works, and ends up in a brutal prison as a result.

The Interpreters (1965) -- authored by the first African to win the Nobel Prize for literature -- has several highly original scenes that reminded me of little else in fiction. But a part-farcical party with some professor attendees brought back memories of academics depicted in novels such as Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs (1984) and Richard Russo's Straight Man (1997).

(As you may have noticed, the three novels I read last month came out years before the books I was reminded of. So Soyinka, Harrison and Theroux weren't influenced by those later works -- unless they traveled in time as well as words...)

Similarities in novels I read prior to this autumn? Among them are the intense water-themed conclusions to Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) and Jack London's Martin Eden (1909), the law-enforcement violence in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1997) and the traumatic experiences of Americanized immigrants (first or second generation) when they return to their ancestral countries in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner (2003) and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007).

Literature also contains other kinds of similarities. The writing style of one author can remind you of the writing style of another; for instance, Cormac McCarthy's prose evokes William Faulkner's. Or authors can share particular literary devices, as when Emile Zola followed in the footsteps of Honore de Balzac by putting some of the same characters in different novels (with those characters starring in certain books and playing secondary roles in others). Or authors can interlock short stories in a way that creates a quasi-novel, as did Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteridge (2008).

Speaking of short stories, I just read 2013 Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro's "Friend of My Youth." The relationship among Flora, Ellie and Robert -- and then Flora, Robert and Audrey -- in that 1990 tale reminded me a bit of the trios in Edith Wharton's 1911 Ethan Frome (Ethan, Zeena, Mattie) and John Irving's 1985 The Cider House Rules (Homer, Candy, Wally). In all those cases, there are romantic, near-romantic or anti-romantic situations as well as grievous physical injury or illness.

What's the point of all this? Well, it's fun to spot connections between books. Of course, it's fairly easy to see similarities between novels by the same author, but it can be more satisfying to find commonalities between books by different writers.

Do you have examples of books (by different writers) that contain some similarities?

Thanks to the following commenters for their recent mentions of authors and books discussed in this post: "ultrabop" (Jim Harrison), "geddy lee is a god" (Wole Soyinka), "gypsynomad" (The God of Small Things) and Brian Bess and "giftsthatpurr" (The Mosquito Coast). All well worth reading!

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In his often-humorous Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir, Dave Astor recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists, columnists and others such as Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Ann Landers, Hillary Clinton and Coretta Scott King. Contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book -- which includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover blurbs by Arianna Huffington and Gary Larson ("The Far Side").