This may be my favorite Dickens novel (pending re-reads of _A Tale of Two Cities_, _David Copperfield_ and _Nicholas Nickleby_, all of which I read over TWENTY years ago. gulp). What a change from Florence, Amy, and Esther! Bella and Lizzie may not be my favorite female protagonists in all literature, but they are complicated and sympathetic. The story of the novel in part centers on Bella's transformation _into_ Esther et al., though it's hard to picture saccharine Esther or long-suffering Florence throwing a how-to house-wifery book across the room in frustration, as Bella does near the end of her "Angel in the House" make-over.
Lizzie is just as interesting. Her personality matches more closely to the Dickensian ideal, but as a lower-class woman, she occupies a more troubled place in the Dickensian world. And I love that it is her problematic upbringing that transforms the end of her story from a tragedy to an improbably happy romance. In other words, she succeeds because of her "low" upbringing, not in spite of it.
The plot-line involves the usual claustrophobic Dickens setting. (Everyone in every Dickens novel knows each other, meets one another, or somehow has an impact on each other's lives. It's as though London has no more than 50 or 60 people in it.) Also, the plot as always wraps up neatly and improbably. But that for me is part of the delight. And this novel does not rely on trains or falling houses to knock off the villains. The good characters are shrewd enough and ruthless enough to stand up for themselves (even Lizzie actively avoids her potential nemesis rather than playing deer-in-the-headlights), and the villains' own self-destructive tendencies take care of much of the problem.
At 800 pages OMF may seem daunting, but compared to the other Dickens books I've been reading lately it passed quickly and happily, never feeling like a burden. A true joy to read, or in this case, to re-read.
An interesting side-note: several chapters in manuscript format were with Dickens when he was in a deadly train crash. After helping out among the dead, dying and wounded, he reportedly climbed back into his train car to rescue the manuscript, which was unharmed. I'm hoping these chapters will be on display this fall (2011) when the Morgan Library stages its Dickens exhibit.