A thoughtful novel centering on faith, doubt, miracles, and friendship, _A Prayer for Owen Meany_ tells the story of two boys who grow up in the 50s a...moreA thoughtful novel centering on faith, doubt, miracles, and friendship, _A Prayer for Owen Meany_ tells the story of two boys who grow up in the 50s and 60s in New England.
If someone had described this novel to me before I read it, I would have imagined that the faith, doubt and miracles would have been the part of the novel that I could least relate to, but in fact, the portions of novel that felt most distancing to me were the parts where the narrator, reflecting on his past from the 1980s, the present for the novel's composition, commented on past events and mores. He would interject, "Remember that!" with an affectionate, incredulous exasperation, but as a reader who was born in the 70s, I could only respond, "Um, no." I think the novel would have hit harder if I had lived during the Vietnam era that is so central to the events of the novel.
Which is not to say I didn't enjoy it. I ended up caring about the characters, and the climactic revelations were satisfying in way they so rarely are in books that hint at mysterious events and facts that will be revealed by the end. This is also a book for book lovers. There are references to works I know, and others I don't. "A Christmas Carol," one of my favorites, appears in the plot, and, I think, connects to themes within the novel. The character named "Hester" hints at a story with an even stronger relevance, _The Scarlet Letter_. This is a book that I will be thinking about for a long time to come, and one I can imagine revisiting in the future.(less)
A meandering novel about life, love, and politics in a small English Cathedral city.
This was just my second Trollope novel, but it won't be my last. I...moreA meandering novel about life, love, and politics in a small English Cathedral city.
This was just my second Trollope novel, but it won't be my last. I am finding them charming. In length and language, they are reminiscent of Dickens, but in tone and plot they remind me more of Austen, since they lack the sensationalism and sentimentality that so characterize Dickens' novels. Instead, like Austen's works, this novel and _The Warden_, which precedes it, deal with the everyday foibles and actions of characters who are neither wholly good or wholly wicked. Even Mr. Harding, the titular character of the first novel in the Barchester series, who is the most admirable, in my opinion, has his weaknesses of character. And even the least admirable has his or her virtues. Also like Austen, Trollope allows his narrator to interpose, though he does so with greater frequency and vehemence.
This narrator occasionally irritates me, not for the fact of his interruptions, which in general I enjoy, but for the content of some of those interruptions. In addition to weighing in on issues of class conflict, which not surprisingly do not agree with my own feelings on issues of class, he pontificates on the "correct" role and behavior of women, which naturally is one of quiet submissiveness to their husbands and fathers. This is to be expected, and if Dickens had a narrator who expressed his views explicitly, it seems pretty clear he would say the same. Trollope, though, in contrast to Dickens, writes a variety of female characters who have an interesting interior life, full of flaws as well as virtues. The reader is not stuck with the choice between an insipid Esther Summerhouse or Amy Dorrit and an interesting but wholly evil Madame Defarge. This makes it especially frustrating that the narrator insists on circumscribing their lives with the same stifling "rules" that Dickens illustrates, but does not specify. And the incredibly satisfying scene in which a sympathetic female character smacks an undesired, overzealous suitor upside the head is undercut by the narrator, who criticizes her for acting in a way that might be acceptable for a lower-class woman, but not for a woman of her upbringing and class. Still, Trollope lets her take her swing, which counts for something.(less)
I very much enjoyed the first three quarters of this book. Written almost like a nineteenth century novel, it lays out a mystery in fluent, elegant pr...moreI very much enjoyed the first three quarters of this book. Written almost like a nineteenth century novel, it lays out a mystery in fluent, elegant prose. Its setting intrigued me, and its vast colorful cast of characters made the New Zealand mining town come to life. Right up to the end, my only critique was that the characters, often elaborately described in terms of interior motives, tended to resemble one another in spite of the prose's detailed insistence on their individuality.
Then came the end. The final four or so book sections (out of 12) are jarringly short, and increasingly so. The chapter blurbs, which early on read very much like ones in a Victorian novel, by the end do the work of the chapter, leaving scant paragraphs in the body of the chapter to give an impressionistic snap-shot of a related moment that they describe. I assume this was an artistic choice, but it reads more like a book outline by an author who hasn't finished the job.
Also, unlike a true Victorian novel, this one does not wrap things up completely, leaving much unexplained, and the fate of many of the characters unspecified. Specifically, one early scene is never satisfactorily accounted for, and I am left to conclude it was supernatural, which I also find irritating.
Overall, an enjoyable read, but I felt slightly cheated by the end.(less)
I read this book quickly, absorbed in the details of its main character's life. I enjoyed how it jumped around through time, putting events separated...moreI read this book quickly, absorbed in the details of its main character's life. I enjoyed how it jumped around through time, putting events separated by years into interesting juxtaposition. Ultimately, though, it left me unsatisfied. I'm not even sure why, but I think it has to do with the ending, which felt abrupt and somewhat disconnected from other parts of the story. It may just need more reflection on my part, to connect Pegeen's story, told in the first chapter and recalled in the last paragraphs, to Marie's. Another scene that I very much liked also may point to a reason for my dissatisfaction. In it, Marie, at the oldest we see her chronologically, reflects back on why she refused to learn how to cook as a child, and now offers us a reason not given in that earlier narrative, one that feels both true and heart-breaking. I loved this moment, and I think I would have liked to spend more time with this Marie, and had more insights from her. Instead, the book ends with middle-aged Marie, thinking back for no obvious reason on Pegeen. There is a lot to this book, perhaps worth revisiting--because I wonder if my dissatisfaction has more to do with the shallowness of my own reading than with faults in the book. ***Edited to add a star: after reflection, I feel like the details, the prose, and the layers of the book warrant a higher rating than my original one. In particular, there are interesting Biblical echoes throughout, especially in the names of the main character and her brother, Marie and Gabriel, who in the New Testament feature together in the scene of the Annunciation. Maybe this seems especially significant to me because I'm a medievalist: images of the angel speaking to the Virgin abound in medieval manuscripts. These images make me think of Gabe's answer to Marie's anguished question, "Who will love me?", an answer that provides both the title to the book and a meaning much more profound than it seems on the surface.(less)
In word: tedious. I slogged through over 700 pages of florid prose, flat characters, silly plotting, and objectionable philosophy on the recommendatio...moreIn word: tedious. I slogged through over 700 pages of florid prose, flat characters, silly plotting, and objectionable philosophy on the recommendation of a friend. Now I'm thrilled to be done.
The worst part, in my opinion, was the author's treatment of economic disparity. When confronted with the unfairness of Gilded Age wealth distribution, one plutocrat pontificates (wisely, we are meant to understand), that humans don't understand the full pattern and meaning of life. All things make sense from a higher plane. OK, Mr. Rich Guy, whatever helps you sleep at night. Maddeningly, the character he explains this to, who has spent his life on the streets fending for himself, accepts this answer. Another character, a very minor one, explains that he himself used to be poor, until someone told him some hard, ugly truths, so he changed his ways and stopped being so poor. (He now spends his life as a mortician to the poor, whom he slices up in such numbers that he has come to despise them.) Clearly the poor just need a good talking to, and if they are the right sorts, they'll cut that sh!t out. To cap it all off, the author refers to parts of New York City as "the city of the poor." This is apparently Brooklyn and the other outer boroughs (though it's not clear from his descriptions of the city the author understands that Staten Island even exists). The city of the poor is dangerous, dirty, and crime-ridden, and rich people only go there at great risk for kicks. Oh, the Five Points in Manhattan may also be part of the city of the poor. Every time I read that phrase, "city of the poor," I wanted to punch something. Grr. More on this topic below the spoiler alert.
If you can stomach the author's politics, you are free to enjoy a cast of boring characters. The women are all extremely beautiful, or else they are comic relief. Each beautiful woman is relentlessly paired off. While each keeps her career after she finds her man, one keeps her name after marriage, and one declines to marry at all, they still seem ancillary to the male characters. The men in the novel are all very handsome, unless they are comic relief or villains. Although! Peter Lake is (gasp) losing his hair.
And then there is the plot. I can't even. And don't get me started on the magic horse. This novel is a mess, and a long one at that. I don't understand why it gets so many rave reviews. Everyone is different, I guess, and people are clearly seeing something here that I don't. I also don't understand who thought it would be a good idea to make it into a movie. Even if you love the book, its combination of philosophical pontificating and long prose flights of fancy don't seem like they would translate into a visual medium. What doesn't surprise me: the movie is apparently very bad.
So the culmination of all the novel's economic chauvinism is its final portion. (Final warning: spoilers ahead). New York City is razed to the ground, partly through its comic-book gang of villains, but also partly because poor people do that sort of thing when they riot. Everything burns except special designated pockets protected of Manhattan by the heroic mayor and his forces. This reads like the fantasy of a wealthy misanthrope: New York is a fantastic city, wonderful in every way, if only we could get rid of all the poor and their unsightly dwellings, and those awful homeless people. Basically all the outer boroughs, and some parts of Manhattan. We can save Grand Central, the museums, the skyscrapers, and our favorite restaurants. Then it will be perfect! It's okay if most people die. It's all part of a grand plan that we humans are to small to understand.
The author's fantasy of the perfect city is a golden city of "perfect justice." This does not resemble my idea of perfection at all. I'm with Hamlet on this one: "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" (less)
The story of Saint-Exupéry is fascinating, and this biography provides a wealth of well-researched details, but sadly Schiff's prose is clunky and som...moreThe story of Saint-Exupéry is fascinating, and this biography provides a wealth of well-researched details, but sadly Schiff's prose is clunky and sometimes confusing. She had a tendency to--in the middle of a sentence, often intervening between subject and verb--provide extra information, set off by dashes (irony intended). I found it difficult to keep track of who was doing what, and even who was who, in part because of poor sentence structure and ill-constructed paragraphs, in part because Schiff seemed to be assuming at times knowledge that I didn't have. Even the overall structure of the book felt clumsy--it started out with Saint-Exupéry in North Africa, then went back to his childhood, but never made it clear why this in medias res technique was used, or why that point in the author/aviator's history was important (I'm assuming it was because of the importance it played for him later, especially in his writing). I believe this was the author's first biography, so she may have just needed a more proactive editor. I can't help but think that Saint-Exupéry himself would not have approved, based on Schiff's account of his excruciating perfectionism when it came to his own prose. (less)