Anyone who has ever spent a week at home with the flu and emerged knowing more about the residents of Pine Valley on All My Children than about one’s own family understands the power of serial stories. Enter with a casual motive — to see what all the fuss is about Emmy-less Susan Lucci, say — and you may emerge half a year later, blinking in the light, disoriented by reality after losing yourself in an imaginary universe.
The literary equivalent of this pleasantly drugged condition is the consumption of serial novels, and the truly hooked can make their way even through something as massive as the 17-paperback series of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels in a matter of months. (One man I know, gasping for more about Capt. Jack Aubrey after No. 17, The Commodore, began again with the audio version of volume 1, Master and Commander.) A good installment ought to be able to stand on its own, so that you feel immediately at home even with guests who may have been carrying on previously without you. But the best serials induce excitement in readers who take the time to begin at the beginning and stay through dessert.
Read Queen Lucia, for instance, the first in the ”Make Way for Lucia” series (HarperCollins) by the late E.F. Benson, and you’ll want to gobble up the subsequent five books like so many Pepperidge Farm cookies. Set in two fictional country towns in the south of England between the 1920s and World War II and gaily obsessed with the petty-snobbish activities of two rival social-climbing ladies, the series offers all the best traits of tasty serial book consumption: a setting you wish you lived in yourself, keenly drawn characters, and a narrative motor that keeps the action moving forward without flagging.
Contemporary author Jan Karon certainly understands the importance of location. Placing her popular quartet of ”Mitford” novels in the kind of small-town America that exists more in the imagination than in reality these days, the North Carolina novelist — a former advertising executive who has clearly done her marketing homework — cracked the best-seller list this summer with her fourth installment, Out to Canaan (Viking/Penguin). In Karon’s glass-bubble America, Mitford’s central character, a lovable Episcopal minister, considers retirement; the local mayoral race has the town in a tizzy; and everyone talks to everyone else on Main Street. (A fifth Mitford book is in the works, as well as a cookbook that will undoubtedly serve up comfort food.)
A good serial writer can make even a big city feel like a small town. Armistead Maupin makes all of San Francisco a vibrant village in his wonderful six-volume Tales of the City series (HarperCollins). Unspooling his stories in the manner of Charles Dickens — they first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976 — Maupin contains the cosmos within one fictional apartment house. The only downside is that the stories end, and the reader, who has come to enjoy Maupin’s crew more than one’s own much less colorful friends, is left with a far duller social life.