Hello there! It’s been a while. With everything going on, I’ve been slow to pick up new books, but really enjoying revisiting old favorites with new eyes. I’ve done just that here with one of my most-loved contemporary romances, Kate Clayborn’s Luck of the Draw. It’s book two of the Chance of a Lifetime series, but can be read on its own. Here’s the cover and a description from the author’s website:
Sure, winning the lottery allows Zoe Ferris to quit her job as a cutthroat corporate attorney, but no amount of cash will clear her conscience about the way her firm treated the O’Leary family in a wrongful death case. So she sets out to make things right, only to find gruff, grieving Aiden O’Leary doesn’t need—or want—her apology. He does, however, need something else from her. Something Zoe is more than willing to give, if only to ease the pain in her heart, a sorrow she sees mirrored in his eyes…
Aiden doesn’t know what possesses him to ask his family’s enemy to be his fake fiancée. But he needs a bride if he hopes to be the winning bid on the campground he wants to purchase as part of his beloved brother’s legacy. Skilled in the art of deception, the cool beauty certainly fits the bill. Only Aiden never expects all the humor and heart Zoe brings to their partnership—or the desire that runs deep between them. Now he’s struggling with his own dark truth—that he’s falling for the very woman he vowed never to forgive.
Image and description from the author’s website, which also contains buy links. CWs for the book include loss of a family member, grief, and addiction, none of which are discussed directly in this blog post.
Rather than a close reading of one particular passage, I wanted to talk about a particular type of sentence structure that stood out to me as doing some really specific emotional work in Luck of the Draw. The kind of sentences I’m talking about are essentially split into two halves. In the first half, the topic of the sentence is introduced as a pronoun. The second half of the sentence fills in the contours of that pronoun with more information. In the cases below, the pronoun is bolded and underlined, and the clarification is in color.
“He’s so stern, Aiden”
“It’s a funny thing about the campground: I haven’t felt lonely there, not really”
“There’s no reason why it should hurt, what she’s said”
“We’re so well matched, me and Aiden– I can feel it, how good we’ll be together.”
I have two different ways of thinking about these sentences. The first is my best attempt at a technical definition, the second is more about how I experienced the sentences as a reader. The best standard definition I’ve found (and please feel free to correct me if there’s a better name for this) is that they’re a variety of periodic sentence. Periodic sentences are defined as sentences where “the essential elements… are withheld until the end.” These sentences don’t quite fit the classic definition, which often assumes that the sentence will remain grammatically incomplete until its final clause. However, the writing here uses a particular type of subordination that leaves the most essential act of the sentence – putting a name to the feeling previously designated by a generic pronoun – until the end. (In so doing they also resemble cleft sentences). It’s not so much that the thought is incomplete until the end, but rather that the general experience of an emotion precedes the ability to name it. Which, as we’ll see shortly, is not just structurally significant, but also thematically relevant.
The other way I’ve thought about this kind of sentence comes from my experience learning foreign languages, and what’s often called the “topic-comment” structure. Whereas English commonly uses Subject-Verb-Object structures, many other languages start with a topic, and follow with comments about it. (This structure is used in several East Asian languages, and there’s a good explanation here, although my experience with it comes from learning American Sign Language, which also uses a version of topic-comment structures). I think about the sentences from Luck of the Draw as a reversal of topic-comment sentences, in which commentary about the thing precedes the introduction of the topic. Again, the sentences I’m looking at don’t fit the topic-comment/comment-topic mold perfectly. Topic-comment is a full grammatical structuring of a sentence, whereas sentences in Luck of the Draw start with a standard English SVO structure as linguistic scaffolding, and build it out with a comment-topic order of detail that subverts our expectations.
This type of sentence appears with some frequency in Luck of the Draw and, like any good writing, its form serves a function of taking the reader along the emotional journey of the characters. To see how this structure mimics emotional arcs, let’s go in-depth with one of my favorite examples. This passage comes from Aiden’s perspective at around the halfway point of the novel, when he’s surprised himself by putting his arm around Zoe.
“There’s a shock of something familiar that runs through my body, and I almost jolt with it, this need to chase down what I recognize. It’s like when you catch the smell of something delicious cooking in the air, something you haven’t had in forever. That half second where your memory syncs up with your sense and you realize, Oh right, cinnamon rolls. I drop my arm from around Zoe’s shoulders when I’ve realized it. It’s family. That’s what it feels like.”
This passage is essentially one long ride up to the act of naming a feeling with the noun “family.” It’s significant that Aiden would use this word at all, given how much of his history with Zoe involves conflict with, and even opposition to, his family. Unsurprisingly, then, Aiden repeatedly misdirects the reader on the way to associating his feelings for Zoe with the word “family” – a series of misdirections that rely on versions of periodic structure.
As previously discussed, these sentences usually start with a “placeholder” pronoun or other word that will wait to be filled by a particular emotion: in this case, the word “something” stands in at the head of the sentence. But before Aiden can clarify “something” with the definition of “family,” he has to confront the need for a definition at all.
“I almost jolt with it, this need to chase down what I recognize” is, itself, a periodized/cleft sentence: “it” is belatedly defined by a “need to chase down.” The verb “chase down” requires an object, but “what I recognize” remains deliberately vague. Aiden isn’t quite there yet, and while he started off trying to define a feeling (family), he then takes a detour into defining what it’s like to have a feeling you can’t define. So we get two more placeholders waiting for definition (something delicious/something you haven’t had in forever) which he delightfully defines as “cinnamon rolls” before finally arriving at the topic we’ve been waiting for since the comment that “something familiar” has shocked Aiden:
Essentially, Aiden’s sentence structure mirrors the difficulty he has placing the name “family” on the feeling he has for Zoe. The simplicity of the final statement conveys the moment of clarity, the inescapable nature of the definition Aiden has reached.
I’m generally hesitant to make sweeping claims about certain kinds of sentences always, or necessarily, or even purposefully being applied to specific circumstances. One of the best feelings of reading is letting prose work its magic, the ineffable sense of the right sentence at the right time (something this book seems to do perfectly). However, once I started chasing down the comment-topic sentences in this book, I also started to notice that the reverse exist too: there are a smaller but not insignificant number of two-part sentences where the topic comes first. While both Zoe and Aiden use both structures, and in a variety of circumstances, I did find that they had a very different effect on me as a reader, and wanted to try to understand why. Let’s compare a few familiar comment-topic examples with some topic-comment sentences:
Comment – topic
“It’s a funny thing about the campground: I haven’t felt lonely there, not really”
“I don’t want to confront this again, this distrust he has for me”
“We’re so well matched, me and Aiden– I can feel it, how good we’ll be together”
Topic – comment
“But that small, innocent point of contact – my arm around her chair, her hand on my knee- while we watched this thing unfold? Somehow, it’s the first time I’ve really felt we’re on the same team”
“Me and Zoe, we’re not the same”
“Because your money and mine, those are two different things”
“This moment- this funny shock she’s had, it could have happened to anyone”
“This affection– it’s new for us, and I’m surprised at how good it feels”
I do sense a kind of principle governing the topic-comment/comment-topic swap. The topics often occur at the end when they express a feeling that’s hard to name, a broad concept, or something that the characters are shying away from. In the cases above, distrust, family, and feeling lonely, are not entirely concrete, and might be easier to feel before they can be named. Conversely, in topic-comment sentences, you’ll often see something concrete that the characters could notice or visually perceive or touch without assigning meaning to it, and then the sentences unfold as they “comment” or assign it a meaning. In the examples above, people (Aiden and Zoe), things (money, a point of contact), previously observed events (this shock), or – later on in the story – already-recognized affection all serve as topics to be commented on. Again, these are by no means a strict division, and there are certainly counter-examples to be found. However, my reading experience suggests that the sentences convey different shades of meaning: opposing structures for the converse struggles of, on the one hand, feeling big, unquantifiable emotions before you have a name for them, and, on the other, experiencing a physical sensation before you are able to describe the emotion that flows from it.
In addition to doing important emotional work, I think these kinds of sentences are part of why the first person present in Luck of the Draw works so well. I love how leaving topics to the end allows Zoe and Aiden to convey their emotions to the reader, while still replicating that stumbling-around-your-own-feelings mood that often accompanies falling in love. Secondly, I do think that the combination of SVO and topic-comment structuring allows the narration to balance action and emotion. First person present means that characters tell readers what they’re doing as they appear to be doing it. But the way human beings talk about themselves in the present tends to be more focused on feelings than on the self performing actions: I’m more likely, in my daily life, to utter the sentence “This person feels like family” than I am to say “I place my arm around them.” The latter, however, is critical to moving plot forward and describing action. So the SVO/topic-comment combination allows for a balance: it conveys plot and describes action while feeling deeply authentic to the way people narrate their own emotional lives to themselves.
Ultimately, I think there’s a good reason that reading these sentences reminded me of my experience learning foreign languages, even if the topic-comment label doesn’t entirely fit. The sentence structure of good prose is adaptable enough to feel like its own language, created to fit the needs of the characters, plot, and narrative. Reading it becomes a seamless experience of learning to speak along with the characters, and allowing them to gently rearrange how you see the world. Something Luck of the Draw does perfectly.