One-Hit Wonders
May 2017

I fondly remember a section in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame devoted to “One-Hit Wonders”: explosively popular hit songs performed by artists who are never to be heard of again—such as “My Sharona,” “Spirit in the Sky,” “Macarena,” “Gangnam Style,” and “Call Me Maybe.”

Perhaps even better examples come from classical music. Pachelbel’s “Canon” and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio,” like the books listed below, are wonderful pieces, but most of us couldn’t name anything else either composer has written.

Here, then, are some novels that I absolutely loved, some of my very favorite books ever. However, when I eagerly read other books by these authors, I found them entirely disappointing.

  • Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Fascinating look at women’s lives in pre-Communist China, including foot binding and secret messages to one another hidden in the folds of a fan. Alas, I was quite disappointed with See’s other books (including Shanghai Girls, China Dolls, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane).
  • A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. A compelling Pulitzer-prize winning modern retelling of King Lear, in which an Iowa farmer decides to divide his thousand-acre farm among his three daughters. His youngest daughter, through whom the story is told, objects and is cut out of his will. Smiley’s next book, Moo, was ok, but the many she has written since have all left me cold.
  • Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. This lovely fictional account of Vermeer, his painting, and his model, is set in seventeenth-century Delft. What I loved about this book was the way the author’s pellucid, closely observed writing style reflects Vermeer’s style of painting and how the restraint in their relationship reflects the restraint in his art. Chevalier’s subsequent books—including The Lady and the Unicorn and At the Orchard—sorely disappointed.

In addition, I can think of several other fantastic One-Hit Wonders, by necessity, because the authors wrote only wrote one novel!

  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is a stunning and sensuous family saga, forbidden love story, and political drama, set in Kerala, India.
  • Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden tells the haunting, evocative story of a young girl who is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto where she learns the complicated arts of a geisha.
  • Both Roy and Golden are in good company—along with one-note wonders Emily Brontë, Boris Pasternack, and John Kennedy O’Toole!

And, for anyone who might be wondering, the rock & roll one-note wonders were performed by: The Knack, Norman Greenbaum, Los del Rio, Psy, and Carly Rae Jespen.