Beautiful Opening Lines from 21st Century Books

In light of our Aspiring Writers Competition (where we invite you to submit the first 500 words of your unpublished novel for the chance of winning one thousand dollars and a session with a world-renowned literary agent, among other prizes), we thought we would share some of our favorite opening passages from books published in the twenty-first century.

Use these as inspiration to build your reading list, and be sure and let us know which of these opening lines you enjoy the most and if we missed any that should be on the list.


Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris 

We were fractious and overpaid.  Our mornings lacked promise.  At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen.  Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything.  Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled.  We loved free bagels in the morning.  They happened all too infrequently.  Our benefits were astonishing in comprehensiveness and quality of care.  Sometimes we questioned whether they were worth it.  We thought moving to India might be better, or going back to nursing school.  Doing something with the handicapped or working with our hands.  No one ever acted on these impulses, despite their daily, sometimes hourly contractions.  Instead we met in conference rooms to discuss the issues of the day.


The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant. 

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.


Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Notes on change.doc”) reads “May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.,” but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it.  I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact.


For a long time I wrote nothing else.

Life changes in the instant.

The ordinary instant.



The Pale King by Davis Foster Wallace 

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.  An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch.  The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day.  A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys.  All nodding.  Electric sounds of insects at their business.  Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow.  Insects all business all the time.  Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite.  Very old land.  Look around you.  The horizon trembling, shapeless.  We are all of us brothers.


Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.


She was fifty-three years old by then—a grandmother.  Wide and soft and dimpled, with two short wings of dry, fair hair flaring almost horizontally from a center part.  Laugh lines at the corners of her eyes.  A loose and colorful style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady.


Give her credit: most people her age would say it was too late to make any changes.  What’s done is done, they would say.  No use trying to alter things at this late date. 


It did occur to Rebecca to say that.  But she didn’t.


The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz 

Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about—he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.


And except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him). 


He was seven then.


Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer 

My legal name is Alexander Perchov.  But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.  Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her.  If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother.  Father used to dub me Shapka, for the fur hat I would don even in the summer month.  He ceased dubbing me that because I ordered him to cease dubbing me that. 


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

First the colors.

Then the humans.

That’s usually how I see things.

Or at least, how I try.



You are going to die.


Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I’ve got Tourette’s. My mouth won’t quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I’m reading aloud, my Adam’s apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone.


Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.  Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce’s study, “Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites,” published in the Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology in 1975.  Or maybe you’ve seen my photograph in chapter sixteen of the now sadly outdated Genetics and Heredity.  That’s me on page 578, standing naked beside a height chart with a black box covering my eyes.


Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood 

Snowman wakes before dawn.  He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat.  He would so like to believe he is still asleep.


On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow.  Strange how that colour still seems tender.  The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon.  The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.


Out of habit he looks at his watch—stainless-steel case, burnished aluminum band, still shiny although it no longer works.  He wears it now as his only talisman.  A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour.  It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time.  Nobody nowhere knows what time it is. 


NW by Zadie Smith

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts.  Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts.  In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside.  She keeps to the shade.  Redheaded.  On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.  A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine.  In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat.  Fenced in, on all sides.


Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody.  Juliet balcony, projecting for miles.  It ain’t like that.  Nah it ain’t like that.  Don’t you start.  Fag in hand.  Fleshy, lobster-red.    


I am the sole.

I am the sole author.


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 

My name is Kathy H.  I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.  That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year.  That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years.  Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do.  There are some really good carers who’ve been told to stop after just two or three years.  And I can think of one carer at least who went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space.  So I’m not trying to boast.  But then I do know for a fact they’ve been pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too.  My donors have always tended to do much better than expected.  Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as “agitated,” even before fourth donation.  Okay, maybe I am boasting now.  But it means a lot to me, being able to do my work well, especially that bit about my donors staying “calm.”  I’ve developed a kind of instinct around donors.  I know when to hang around and comfort them, when to leave them to themselves; when to listen to everything they have to say, and when just to shrug and tell them to snap out of it.

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