Books about people starting over
January 7, 2013 7:59 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend any good books (or films, but I prefer reading) in which a major plot point is the main character dropping out of their own life and starting again in a new location under a new identity?

Double Jeopardy, the Tommy Lee Jones film, and a certain book that sold quite well in 2012 are two that I saw/read recently, so I want more. I have long loved the idea that disappearing and starting over is an option, and good books that also describe some of the nuts and bolts of how they achieve that always interest me. Thanks for any and all recommendations, I have my library card to hand ready to go look for em!
posted by jamesonandwater to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

Given the fact that the film just came out, I would be remiss not to mention Les Miserables.
posted by TTIKTDA at 8:03 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

David Cronenberg's film A History of Violence. It is based on a comic, but I have not read it.
posted by griphus at 8:05 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

"The Outsider", by Richard Wright.
posted by Melismata at 8:05 AM on January 7, 2013

Last year the BBC had a superb 7-part series called "The Shadow Line." It begins with the murder of a head gangster, coinciding with the return to work of a police detective who just recovered from a gunshot wound to the head. Later in the series a mysterious character appears, and it is revealed how he had changed his identity and erased a past.

The Count of Monte Cristo is perhaps the most famous example in classic lit, with Les Mis (on preview) as a close second.

Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim" is about a sailor who was fleeing his reputation following a cowardly act.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:06 AM on January 7, 2013

Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years fits the bill exactly.
posted by car01 at 8:08 AM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Wakefield, a short story by Hawthorne, is about this, although with a twist that makes it one of the most disturbing stories I've ever read.
posted by OmieWise at 8:13 AM on January 7, 2013

Iain [M.] Banks' delicious SF novel in his Culture Universe, "Use of Weapons," does this, but in what way I cannot spoil.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:16 AM on January 7, 2013

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta has two such characters.
posted by activitystory at 8:18 AM on January 7, 2013

The Big Picture by Douglas Kennedy
posted by something something at 8:20 AM on January 7, 2013

T.C. Boyle, "Drop City"
posted by thelonius at 8:24 AM on January 7, 2013

A Princess of Mars (adapted as a film last year called John Carter)

This is a major plot point of the television series Mad Men

It's one element in Lady Chatterley's Lover, though not until later on in the story
posted by XMLicious at 8:25 AM on January 7, 2013

Haruki Murakami's masterpiece The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a magical realist version of this.
posted by Oktober at 8:25 AM on January 7, 2013

posted by Gungho at 8:26 AM on January 7, 2013

This happens in The Godspeaker Trillogy.
posted by jmd82 at 8:27 AM on January 7, 2013

Vanishing Act is the first in a series by Richard Perry that involve a protagonist who helps other people disappear, and you often track her preparations, the chase across the country, and how she leaves them (usually at some degree of personal risk/imperilment). Likely to push some of the same buttons, and I defy you to be able to se them down!!
posted by acm at 8:27 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Count of Monte Cristo, of course!
posted by easily confused at 8:27 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

My Blue Heaven is a fish-out-of-water comedy about a mobster who is sent to the suburbs under the auspices of the Witness Protection Program.
posted by Flunkie at 8:30 AM on January 7, 2013

Cape Fear
posted by empath at 8:32 AM on January 7, 2013

"Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon (1930) recounts the story, apparently based on a true case, of a businessman named Flitcraft who spontaneously abandons his career and his marriage, abruptly moving to another city and inventing another identity."

However, I believe this was not part of the main plot
posted by canoehead at 8:41 AM on January 7, 2013

The author of "Vanishing Act" is Thomas Perry, not Richard, but it's pretty good and the first of a series of five. Some of Perry's other well-written novels employ a similar theme.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:42 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconds (1963) by David Ely
posted by dgeiser13 at 8:48 AM on January 7, 2013

There's the nonfiction book Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (and its 2007 movie version) about a young man who changed his name, gave away all his money and possessions, and traveled all around the US, finally ending up in the Alaskan wilderness. It does talk quite a bit about the nuts and bolts of what he did along the way, though if you're looking for something inspirational it's probably worth nothing that things don't end well for him.
posted by jessypie at 8:54 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Two Graham Greene novels/novellas come to mind. One is The Ministry of Fear, in which the main character loses his memory and thus some of his burdens for a brief period. The other is The Tenth Man, which deals with a character who draws the short lot in a decimation but trades his way out of it.
posted by payoto at 8:58 AM on January 7, 2013

Benjamin Button has that theme, though not set in total reality.
posted by sb3 at 8:59 AM on January 7, 2013

Nthing The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Miserables.

There is also The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier. An academic (unwillingly) trades places with an aristocrat. Although he is outraged initially, he can't help becoming involved with the aristocrat's dysfunctional family and their business. It's a good read.

There was also a movie starring Alec Guinness but I haven't seen it.
posted by methroach at 9:16 AM on January 7, 2013

Not exactly what you're asking for but there's a non-fiction book called "How to disappear completely and never be found" (and a radiohead song of the same name). Never read it but it's a great title!
posted by purplemonkeydishwasher at 9:19 AM on January 7, 2013

Probably not exactly what you are looking for, but Moon Palace by Paul Auster has a lot of identity searching going on. It kind of ends with a "new identity in a new place".
posted by arhammer at 9:47 AM on January 7, 2013

The original Robert Ludlum book "The Bourne Identity" was about an American Special Operator in the Vietnam War, David Webb, who buried himself in CIA-work after his family was killed, and assigned to be the person of Jason Bourne, a rising but largely mythical assassin threat in Europe and Asia, which was previously just a name and reputation manufactured by the CIA. The CIA created Bourne in order to draw out the genuine assassin, Carlos the Jackal, who was bombing airports and such at the time. When the Webb lost his memory, he discovered his fake identity and took it as his real one.

This example, above all spy fiction's fast-and-loose exchanges of identities, stands out to me because the man embraced the fictional identity as his own, unable to recognize it as a fake.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:58 AM on January 7, 2013

The Sisters by Nancy Jensen has at least two (more like two-and-a-half) characters like this.
posted by FergieBelle at 10:14 AM on January 7, 2013

Someone Else by Tonino Benacquista. One evening two men who have just met at a Paris tennis club make a bet; they give each other exactly three years to radically alter their lives... It's realistic and edgy with a lot of twists I loved it!
posted by proximacentauri at 11:12 AM on January 7, 2013

It's arguable depending on what you mean by "new identity" but I'd say W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence qualifies.
posted by maurice at 11:40 AM on January 7, 2013

Shantaram is the roughly autobiographical story of Australian bank robber who escapes from prison and starts a new (albeit not any more straight and narrow) life in Bombay, India, complete with new identity.

Disclaimer: I'm around half way through the 900+ page book and while the plot is entertaining and his descriptions of urban and rural India fascinating, his excessively detailed prose and "deep" adages about love and forgiveness are driving me crazy. But it's really popular among the backpacking crowd, so go figure.
posted by Paper rabies at 12:14 PM on January 7, 2013

Gaining Ground by Joan Barfoot
Also published under a new identity! titled "Abra"
posted by runincircles at 12:26 PM on January 7, 2013

Ann Patchett's The Patron Saint of Liars
posted by daisystomper at 2:12 PM on January 7, 2013

The Return of Martin Guerre, and the Hollywood version of that story, Sommersby.
posted by meronym at 3:16 PM on January 7, 2013

Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, one of her very early works, is about a woman who has a double life as a writer of crappy romances and a feminist poet, and who fakes her own death and goes to Italy when it gets too much.
posted by andraste at 4:31 PM on January 7, 2013

Thanks everyone! Lots for me to get through here.
posted by jamesonandwater at 6:00 PM on January 7, 2013

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