Complex and beautifully written. Also feels like a companion in some ways to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I read over and over as a child, while obComplex and beautifully written. Also feels like a companion in some ways to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I read over and over as a child, while obviously being a lot deeper and touching on more mature subjects....more
This was my first reread since I was a young adult, and it produced two somewhat contrary impressions.
The first time I read the book must have been fThis was my first reread since I was a young adult, and it produced two somewhat contrary impressions.
The first time I read the book must have been fairly close in time to seeing the movie, and I recall having little patience for the lovers, even as I was sympathetic to Newland. Despite being boy-crazy as a teenager, fictional romance tended to irritate me, and with my cold-hearted "reasonable" approach to the world I had a hard time reading about people doing foolish things for the sake of love.
With almost two more decades of life under my belt, I've become a far more sentimental reader, and I was much more taken in by the story of doomed and frustrated love. Wharton doesn't describe exactly why they love each other and she doesn't have to; what she does describe well is that feeling of sudden connection that happens sometimes, and all the unspoken communication it entails. The reader can see why they're in love and, in damning detail, why they cannot be together, and easily understand why this story has become a classic.
At the same time, I couldn't help feeling that the shift in focus from social commentary to romance was something of a loss. To me, the first and most obvious comparison of the Adultery Classics is Anna Karenina, because Wharton had some of Tolstoy's deep and generous powers of observation. The opening chapters of the novel were a revelation to me, as Newland dissects every element of his staid and stale culture, especially his perception of the "innocent" women in his milieu.
I understand that the final message of the novel is those women were never as naive as he believed them to be, but it's muddied and softened somewhat by the sensitive but sentimental portrayal of his romance. One has the sense of moving from his clear-headed detachment at the time of his engagement, through a sudden ducking into warm and dangerous waters of romance, emotion, and "real life," and then emerging again for a gasp of air into the "crystalline air" of old New York, but the uneven attention paid to his revelations and state of mind in the latter portion of his life diminishes the social observations at the beginning of the novel.
In short, this feels like two books, and while I enjoyed them both, I'm sorry for the loss of sharper novel of social observation that fades as the story travels into romance. I don't care for the uglier adultery classics, such as Madame Bovary, where the romance is sordid and sad, but as this is the rare one written by a female author, it's sad to lose that glimpse of sharp perspective....more
Lyrical and evocative, and also heart-piercingly true. All my favorite elements of good early 20th C lit -- tight but descriptive prose, complex emotiLyrical and evocative, and also heart-piercingly true. All my favorite elements of good early 20th C lit -- tight but descriptive prose, complex emotional scenarios laid out simply, and a fascinating viewpoint surrounded by interesting characters. My favorite part is how Janie never quite loses sight of herself and what she needs in life, even when she has to wait for it, and how she grabs at the chances life presents to her....more
Reading classic literature in my 30s has been so rewarding; when I was younger I would have comprehended the words but without life experience the impReading classic literature in my 30s has been so rewarding; when I was younger I would have comprehended the words but without life experience the impact and real understanding would be gone. Tolstoy's exploration of marriage and society, his thoughts on economics and religion, and even the frequent references to nursing mothers and their concerns (enough milk? when to wean?) would've been lost on me just a few years ago. One of my favorite aspects of classic lit is how strongly you sense the authorial presence behind the novels -- what concerns them, what knowledge they have, their family life and personal history -- and I loved spending time in Tolstoy's generous and compassionate mind....more
Enjoyable, but a little uneven in tone -- I kept wanting it to be sharper and tighter in the satirical bits, or commit more whole-heartedly to the romEnjoyable, but a little uneven in tone -- I kept wanting it to be sharper and tighter in the satirical bits, or commit more whole-heartedly to the romantic ones. I laughed at several funny lines of commentary and parodical passages of Victorian/Bronte literature, but Gibbons also made an odd effort to keep the book "timeless," with references to non-existent technology and wars, whereas I wanted to sink into 1930s deliciousness. Usually with a good book/movie pairing there are strengths on both sides, but other than some very wry and incisive asides about Mr. Mybug and "intellectual" men, there's almost nothing in the book that wasn't done as well or better in the movie. Which I feel like a Philistine for saying, and I probably would have loved the book if I'd read it first (instead of seeing the movie at a young age), but there it is....more
I own the original 1902 copy, which belonged to my great-great-aunt Gladys -- it was a childhood favorite of mine, and what a surprise to see it's beeI own the original 1902 copy, which belonged to my great-great-aunt Gladys -- it was a childhood favorite of mine, and what a surprise to see it's been re-released in a new edition! I'm so glad, since it's such a funny, sprightly book and I've always thought it would still be popular if only people knew about it....more
Delightful as ever. I do think every edition needs a brief intro giving modern readers a little context, since this is written as a satire of the overDelightful as ever. I do think every edition needs a brief intro giving modern readers a little context, since this is written as a satire of the overwrought sensationalist fiction young ladies read at the time (novels being much more mainstream and low-class than poetry, history, etc -- think the kind of stuff Jo March reads and writes when she's young). Catherine is a realistic character who's constantly being contrasted, tongue in cheek, with the romantic heroine she "ought" to be, and letting her imagination run away with her due to reading too many of Mrs. Radcliffe's novels. Meanwhile, real and serious marriage transacting is taking place all around the innocent Catherine, which Austen uses to show up her innocence and modesty (while still poking a little fun at gender relations and Catherine's conforming to the contemporary ideal of an ignorant, pleasant, malleable woman's mind). The happy romantic ending is still witty and dry, and I do love Henry Tilney and his witty speeches, even if he's a little hard on Catherine at times without her realizing it....more
I don't know how I missed this in childhood, when I read most of the Victorian/Edwardian "good invalid" books -- Little Women, The Birds' Christmas CaI don't know how I missed this in childhood, when I read most of the Victorian/Edwardian "good invalid" books -- Little Women, The Birds' Christmas Carol, Pollyanna -- but I guess I've read it now. Too bad about the super-preachy moralism in the last third, because the first part of the book is about real children behaving realistically, reminding me of the best of L.M. Montgomery or Laura Ingalls Wilder. The children are charming and fun, kind of like the Five Little Peppers except not poor, and I would much rather have read more about their adventures than about the School of Pain....more
The writing in this novel is unquestionably wonderful; descriptive without being overwrought, and full of allusions and poetry without becoming impeneThe writing in this novel is unquestionably wonderful; descriptive without being overwrought, and full of allusions and poetry without becoming impenetrable. It reads best if you have some familiarity with traditional pioneer narratives, as it is a more grown-up version than Little House on the Prairie but still wasn't written in a time when people were regularly examining the concept of "civilizing" or "reclaiming" the West. A modern reader just has to acknowledge that evacuating the natives (who are almost never mentioned) and building things on their land is a worthy goal to these characters, and leave it at that.
The story is told from the 1979 point of view of an older man, disabled now and recently abandoned by his wife, going through the letters and papers of his grandmother, who was a somewhat well-known artist and chronicler of Western life. The woven narrative has, I think, mixed success. I liked Lyman's commentary on Susan and Oliver Ward's life when he was re-telling it, but found the modern story uninteresting. This is especially a problem since, after a long, slow-paced build, Susan's story comes to an abrupt halt, with the last fifty years of her life barely sketched in a few paragraphs, while events in Lyman's life comprise the ending. Since I never cared very much about him and his ex-wife is only superficially described, it's asking too much of that storyline to carry enough emotional resonance to end the novel well. To be honest, it feels like that thread was woven in later to explain why Lyman is reliving his grandmother's life and to give her story a modern-day parallel.
In between, though, I was captivated. The description of the Wards' marriage is nuanced and realistic; one can really feel their love and their struggles with each other. Despite being a Pulitzer-winning piece of capital-L Literature, what makes this book most enjoyable are the sections which resemble the kind of historical fiction written now for female readers and disregarded by the literary establishment. Susan's difficulties with supporting her husband emotionally while pursuing her own artistic career are relatable, and some later romantic developments are equally compelling. I felt for her even when I was frustrated with her; it's clear that her attempts to hang onto her Eastern snobbery, particularly through correspondence with cultured friends, is what dooms her marriage, but at the same time it's easy to see why she can't just let go and fully commit to a taciturn man who's compelled to do what he thinks is right even when it brings hardship to his family. There isn't an easy answer to fix this marriage.
And Stegner doesn't provide one, which is fine, but I did object to having fifty years of a failed marriage just dumped in there at the end, after not even describing the melodramatic twist which leads to the collapse in much detail. I think the problem might lie in the interpretation of the title. Angle of Repose refers to an angle of a ditch or canal wall which is sloped enough that pebbles and debris won't roll down it. I assumed, early on, that the novel would then show the Wards having found some measure of peace in their old age after everything they endured together. A line of Lyman's near the end, though, shows that he considers this angle to only be achieved in death. If that's the message of the whole book, I can see why it ends the way it does but I also know why I don't care for it. ...more
The major thing that strikes me about this book is how very *French* it is. Unlike contemporary books from, say, England, the author makes it obviousThe major thing that strikes me about this book is how very *French* it is. Unlike contemporary books from, say, England, the author makes it obvious when people are sleeping together, and flat-out says it when a woman gets pregnant (use of that term might vary between translations of course, but that's what it is in my early 20thc copy). The protagonist seduces two women during the course of the story, and the first time it's because he's young and ambitious and feels that having his first great affair, with the wife of his employer and benefactor, is a necessary step towards becoming the next Napoleon. (The book is set during the Restoration, so a lot of the plot revolves around wealthy people decrying both the Jacobins and especially Napoleon.) He's constantly on the brink of having a duel, and eventually manages to have one (they become buddies after). I *think* Julien's conception of what he needs to do to become an accomplished man of the world (have affairs and duels, dress like a fop) is meant to be tragicomic, especially since he starts off in the priesthood ("the black") despite being pretty much a nonbeliever, and that raises this book above your average Bildungsroman to something with broader social impact. On the surface, this is the typical book about a young man making bad choices out of misguided pride, so you're wincing every time he turns away from a more sensible path offered by a wiser and older friend (which is what I hate about Bildungsromans), but Stendahl doesn't seem to treat Julien all that sympathetically, or as a doomed hero. In fact, Julien holds himself apart emotionally from the increasingly-grand people he associates himself with, and both of his affairs have rather funny and relatable moments when it's clear that both parties are really playing artificial parts that they think they should.
Since it's a 19thc novel, of course Julien's impulses towards the grandiose and dramatic eventually destroy him, along with some not-so-subtle inference from the church, but there's a period of time when Stendahl's dry French wit makes it seem like Julien might really triumph over his social superiors because he's clever and removed. I don't know if Stendahl is saying that educated peasants rising above their station always leads to destruction, or lamenting that fact, but that's certainly an easy takeaway. However, Julien's desperation to do the things that will make him seem cultured and more adult feels more modern than a simple cautionary tale about social status, and he doesn't end by wishing he'd never left his carpenter father in the countryside and come to Paris, as you might expect. His philosophical lack of regret feels, again, very French, and makes this an interesting read for anyone who remembers the dumb things they felt compelled to do when they were 20....more
This is a total comfort read for me -- I still vividly recall reading it for the first time at age 13 and sympathizing in agonizing detail with the heThis is a total comfort read for me -- I still vividly recall reading it for the first time at age 13 and sympathizing in agonizing detail with the heroine's struggles. Because I was relatively new to adult books, I completely did not see the famous twist coming, for which I'm always glad. I'm not much for tear-jerkers or books that tug (or attempt to tug) at the romantic heartstrings, but this book takes me right to that place every time. The settings are fabulously detailed too, and a little escapism to posh 1930s England is always fun. I also only just realized on this reread that the story is a kind of retelling of Jane Eyre, with several important changes. That makes me like it all the more, since I think de Maurier was consciously engaging with an earlier gothic text without just following a preset outline. ...more
I enjoyed the milieu and language of the book -- 1920s/30s upper-crust England, pip pip! -- but there are two ways to interpret the book and both leavI enjoyed the milieu and language of the book -- 1920s/30s upper-crust England, pip pip! -- but there are two ways to interpret the book and both leave me cold. Either we are meant to sympathize with the main character, whose agnosticism is very logical and modern-feeling but whose callous adultery is the most boring literary cliche in the book, or he is actually a cold unfeeling jerk who loses his chance to come to Jesus and become Catholic like everyone else wants him to, and suffers the consequences. Since I can't stand books about men who married without love and for money ditching their wife and family to have a grand affair, and since I am pretty devotedly a-religious, the ending was going to disappoint either way. ...more