For many readers, the pages at the front of a book are simply pieces of paper to turn briskly before arriving at the first chapter. This is understandable; dedications can be cryptic and the copyright information feels like it’s meant for someone else. But here’s why you might want to slow your roll when you arrive at the page containing the epigraph: It provides a window into the mind of an author at work.
Consider the three quotes at the beginning of Angie Kim’s best-selling “Happiness Falls,” which she said help explain what inspired her to write the novel.
Ultimately Kim selected snippets from Emily Dickinson (“I lost a World — the other day!/Has anybody found?”); Stephen Hawking (“It’s a crazy world out there. Be curious”); and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, whose book “The Little Prince” provides the most important part of the trio, she said.
Kim first encountered the book as a child in Seoul — “I read it in Korean or maybe my mom told me the story or read it to me when I was little, I’m not sure” — and later studied it in French class in high school. The fable made its way into Kim’s hands for a third time when she was in law school, serving as a bridesmaid in the wedding of a close friend. “She asked me to read from a scene about taming the fox,” Kim said. “That was the first time I read ‘The Little Prince’ in English.”
While writing “Happiness Falls,” Kim revisited the “special and meaningful” copy of the book that was a gift from the bride. This time she paid close attention to the ending, including “the questions that it asks about what we believe about stories and where they take place in our hearts.” Kim was interested in the idea of suspending disbelief, which led her to the fragment of the story that found its way into her epigraph: “One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams. ‘What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well.’”
Kim said: “I loved this particular quote about there being something that’s unseen, that’s under the surface. That’s what makes something beautiful.” She added, “I just thought, I want to infuse the book with this meaning.”
The strands of Kim’s epigraph don’t necessarily “match,” nor do they need to; that’s the point of the page. “It’s eclectic — these three things that seem very different from each other,” she said. But they create a vibe, a sense of what to expect from the story. And, Kim said, no matter what kind of reader you are, hopefully “Happiness Falls” will contain some of what you’re in search of: “You just have to look for it.”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”