Tyler 's Reviews > Arrowsmith

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
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's review
Jul 24, 2008

liked it
Recommended to Tyler by: _Pulitzer Prize award
Recommended for: _anyone
Read in August, 2008

What a premise for a book: A young man falls in love, not just with a young woman, but with a quest. This is the passion that infuses Arrowsmith. How the author was able to put blood into such an idea explains in part the Pulitzer prize.

The other part that explains the award is that the book is a good read. Covering the nearly 20 years during which a student (and later researcher) learns to embrace his life's calling, the plot never stalls. The constant motion guides us along with Martin Arrowsmith as he follows the thread leading him out of a labyrinth of false promises, and up upon his own personal road less traveled by.

During my reading, I couldn't help comparing the book to The Fountainhead, a book with a similar moral and strikingly similar plot elements. The notion of man as a hero who overcomes constant adversity drives the action in both stories. But Arrowsmith, published some 20 years before, is the better book. One difference is that the later book presents us with a young hero having a fully developed moral sense to start with, and with our book here we see, to better effect, how a man becomes a heroic figure in the first place -- how he learns which choices really matter. Another point of contrast lies in the role of capitalism, which helps the protagonist in The Fountainhead but hampers Martin in his own search for creative freedom. Either way, the effective status of the free market plays a crucial role in both books.

In further contrast, one finds in Martin a callow lad vulnerable to poor judgment, a flaw that elicits an indulgent sympathy. This high-strung fellow with a slightly nerdy disposition, black hair on pale skin and "dreamy" eyes, yaps away with an impossible "awe shucks" Midwestern affectation. His voice sometimes hits an jarringly piercing note; at other points his brusque rudeness abrades. Testy frustration at times pushes him to overwrought tears. And does his own self-discovery, in the end, arrive at the expense of a family member? Proneness to error makes up the bread and butter of the plot.

Rare for a novel, the scientific method is a theme, for Martin's self-actualization depends on it. The necessity of controls in a solid experiment and the need for uninterrupted research factor into the story. The corrupting power of commerce and personal popularity is a danger in which the young doctor finds himself entangled again and again. Like him, we find ourselves even today grappling with the effect that the profit motive exerts on clinical research.

Let's not think that a man turned so inward ends up entirely alone. But again, we find Martin's affections becoming psychological, possibly even at the expense of the sexual and familial. For such as he, the attraction of the mental bond two people can forge is a discovery that sets his psychic makeup apart from the crowd.

To this book, with its distinctive Midwestern tang, I gave a high rating. I recommend it for readers who are looking for an unlikely subject and an unusual hero, a protagonist pushing against a riptide toward unexpected contentment.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Ken (new)

Ken It'll be a while before I return to this book, but Sinclair Lewis I'll always remember because I read BABBITT before the Christian right became the force it is today (granted, its power has faded a bit).

Also, Hemingway (of all people, considering the contrast) once read SL's MAIN STREET slowly and like a student to study the style. I guess that's how you went to school as a writer back then. No bloody MFAs...

Anyway, nice review. Two thumbs (all I have -- at the moment) up.

Tyler Thanks, NE -- and did I mention that the book was well plotted, too?

I think I'm starting to like 20th-century literature better now.

message 3: by Chris (new)

Chris You've done it again; another review that inspires me to read a book I'd otherwise completely neglect. I've never even heard of this book.

I'll add two thumbs up to the pair N.E. is already offering. Thanks for the recommendation and another convincing review.

A couple more like this and I'm going to start hitting you up for bus fare to the library.

Tyler Thanks, Chris -- I hadn't heard much about this book either, but the subject and the prize award made me curious enough to have a look. Nor had I yet read anything by Sinclair Lewis, and I had seen reviews saying that this was his best book.

Secily This book is amazingly contemporary as we struggle for independence from big pharma in medicine. It is a study in writing form, beautiful and intense. Strangely gripping, given the subject. Heartbreaking in human folly.

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