Tom's Reviews > The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
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's review
Feb 19, 12

bookshelves: classics, fiction
Read in February, 2012

It was odd to read this novel of late 19th Century America so soon after finishing the dystopian, futuristic Hunger Games Trilogy. In many ways, this novel was more tragic.

"The Magnificent Ambersons" follows the Amberson family, who were rich, elegant, and admired. Their patriarch was Major Amberson, a Civil War veteran who returned to his small, midwestern town, and made a fortune.

When we join the story, The Major is a widower, whose two remaining children (George and Isabel) are adults. George never marries, and never really works, save for a brief career in Congress. Isabel doesn't work either, of course. She is courted by the vibrant and exciting Eugene Morgan, and the drab, dreary Wilbur Minafer. After Eugene drunkenly destroys a bass violin one night, he is cut off, and Isabel marries Wilbur.

They have a son, whom they name George after Isabel's brother.

Georgie is spoiled rotten, obnoxious and arrogant. He remains this way even through his college years "back east."

During winter holidays his Freshman year, his mother and grandfather throw a ball in his honor. There, he becomes smitten with a lovely young girl, Lucy Morgan.

And let the Greek tragedy begin.

That's how "The Magnificent Ambersons" felt to me: like a pure tragedy, Greek or Shakespearean, it doesn't matter.

The Amberson and Morgan families' fortunes cross. Georgie's plan to live on the Amberson wealth fails as times leave the family behind. The Industrial Revolution is in full swing. The Ambersons resembled an old English Manor family, for whom buildings and streets were named, and whose members were revered as aristocracy.

Eugene Morgan invented an automobile. As time marched on, his fortunes boomed with the age.

Georgie and Lucy continued dating, until Wilbur died. Once Georgie saw that Eugene and Isabel had always loved each other, their love went the way of the horse and buggy.

In the end, Georgie is forced to "do something," to get a job and support himself and his spinster Aunt Fanny. His humiliation grows complete by novel's end; he gets the "comeuppance" the whole town has wished for him since he was a brat.

What's sadder still, is that "the whole town" is largely gone. The Ambersons' mansions are broken up into flophouses. Nobody in the Ambersons' former social strata would be caught dead living in gauche, filthy downtown. Even Amberson Boulevard ends up renamed Tenth Street.

Booth Tarkington won a Pulitzer Prize for this novel. Indeed, it is an incredible piece of writing. The details are rich and vivid without clogging up the narrative. Even more impressive, there's a glib, nasty sort of humor that surfaces from time to time.

"The Magnificent Ambersons" is not an easy book to read, although this has to do more with the unfamiliar timeframe than stodgy prose. It's really a pretty fast read. Its ending implies a positive resolution ("happy" remains to be seen).

For an outstanding study of both an underused time and place in Americana, and for the sharp richness of its character studies, I recommend "The Magnificent Ambersons" wholeheartedly.

(Note: "The Magnificent Ambersons" is in the public domain. You can download it free for Kindle, from Project Gutenburg, and other online sources)

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