by George Eliot
Recommended Ages: 13+
Many times in my book-reviewing career, I have dubbed a particular book "the best novel I have read this year," or at least "the best novel since the last time I named something the best book I had read lately." But somehow there has never come a time when I felt compelled to acknowledge a work as "the best novel I have ever read in my life." Until now. I do not say this lightly, and nor do I qualify it by saying something about it being merely "the best novel by a woman author" (for George Eliot is but the pen-name of Mary Anne/Marian Evans, 1819–1880). In a 2007 Time magazine poll of 125 authors it was listed as the tenth-best book in world literature; but though I have read only half of the books on that top-ten list, I would put Middlemarch above almost any of them. And I say "almost" only because Shakespeare's Hamlet is on there at No. 6—and that hardly counts as a novel, does it? I have read three of the other certifiable novels on that list (War and Peace, Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby) and while I love them all, I also own that they are flawed masterpieces. Middlemarch, however, is flawless. It is a breathtaking, wonderful, hugely impressive work of art; and it is also, at the same time, an intimately engaging, enjoyable piece of entertainment. I never read a novel that I both enjoyed so much and came away from feeling so enriched.
This book is amazing. It abounds in intelligent detail and psychological insight. Its canvas (as becometh a Victorian novel) is filled with a wide variety of finely observed, deeply complex characters whom the narrator addresses with a combination of ironic wit and touching compassion. It balances several interweaving plot lines with unfaltering deftness. It dramatizes the death of romantic fantasies and the ways in which different people come to grips with the disappointing reality, and it does so in such a way that your hopes for the main characters keep you clutching the ears of the book in suspense until the perfectly-timed climax, very near the end of the book. It has characters you will cherish in your heart for a long time, characters you will pity in spite of their foibles, characters to whom you will want to give a smart shake, characters from whom you will shrink in disgust, and several characters who will make you laugh almost every time they open their mouths, but each one remains true to him- or herself as a character.
I looked over Wiki's synopsis of this book before beginning my review, mainly so that I could tell how to spell the characters' names correctly. The reason for this is that I "read" this book via the audio-CD edition narrated by Kate Reading who, besides having the name for this sort of thing, sustained a magnificent performance as the entire cast of characters throughout 26 long disks. So, before I go on, I would like to recommend Ms. Reading's recording to anyone who is dithering over the commitment of reading such a substantial novel. She does better than to make it painless. Her reading of the book bears witness to a keen understanding of the text, the time, and the motivations of all the characters. Naturally, as though effortlessly, she leads the listener into a similar understanding, and an even better appreciation of a novel that is already as excellent as it has any right to be.
Another reason I mention the Wiki synopsis is that I was surprised to see an interpretation of the book quite different from the one I had formed in my mind. I was going to say that Middlemarch, while focusing equal sympathy on its male and female characters, is something of a Girl Power novel. What impresses me about it, in retrospect, is the variety of ways it depicts the power or powerlessness of English gentlewomen in the early 1830s, each according to her particular circumstances, to make herself, the men in her life, and other people happy or unhappy, successful or otherwise. It wasn't easy for women then to accomplish what they wished, even if they had independent resources. And while this novel, like many of its kind, builds drama and suspense on the question whether one or more couples will find married happiness together, Middlemarch also depicts in sometimes painful detail the process by which two married couples fall out of love with each other, or come to realize that getting married was a mistake. And, perhaps heartbreakingly, it lets some of its characters continue in their errors without ever learning their lesson.
The main characters are worth at least a few words of introduction. The novel focuses mainly on three women, upon whose ability or inability to give and receive happiness so much depends. First there is Dorothea Brooke: a religiously devout heiress who chooses the wrong husband out of some idea of noble self-sacrifice, only to be plagued by her husband's unjust jealousy and suspicion even after his death. Eventually she might find love with her first husband's cousin Will—if only she can get around the social prejudices and the codicil in her husband's will which stand in her way. Then there is Rosamond Vincy: the perfect, polished, poised young lady who expects wealth, prestige, and indulgence in having her own way when she marries an ambitious young medical doctor of good birth. When she finds out that things may be otherwise, Rosamund proves to be a shallow, cold woman, incapable of feeling for anyone but herself. In contrast to these two suffocating marriages is the union of plain, sensible Mary Garth and her over-educated beau (Rosamond's brother Fred), who for the longest time seems incapable of settling down to a responsible career.
What keeps these lovers apart, or brings them together, or promises to trap them in a miserable mistake of a marriage (as the case may be), is a complex web of circumstances including, but not limited to: a surprise in an old widower's will; a blackmailing, sponging vagabond named Raffles (no relation to the famous gentleman thief by that name); a young man who has been done out of an inheritance on both sides of his family; a pious old banker with a shameful secret in his past; a kindly bachelor clergyman who helps another man win the woman he himself wants to woo; a ludicrous and sometimes infuriating old gentleman's attempt to run for Parliament; and finally, an interview between two women who have both spent the previous night crying over the same man. In that climactic scene, the whole future happiness of the two people you most want to see together at the end depends on whether or not the most despicable person in the story will find it in her self-interest to do the one decent act of her life. Though, really, the outcome of that decision is probably determined by the other woman's heroic act of self-mastery... But if I say any more, you might understand me, and then why would you need to read the book?
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, the seventh of eight novels completed by George Eliot, was published in serial form in 1871–72, and published in its entirety in 1874. Even if you can't find it in audio format, you should have no difficulty finding a copy in print at either a bookstore or library. You can even buy the e-reader edition for $0.00, a deal in any economy! This novel will never go out of print—not just because it's a "literary classic", but because it is so undeniably good. Once you begin to read it, I think you will understand what I mean.
The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Recommended Ages: 13+
In the Puritan colony of Salem, Massachusetts, sometime in the 1640s, a young woman whose husband had sent her ahead to prepare the way for him bears a child, obviously not his. Shrewd enough to subtract nine from the number of months Hester Prynne has been in town, the religious and civic elders know this—but not who the father is. Partly out of leniency (because they do not know whether Hester's husband is even alive), and partly to shame her into revealing the name of her partner in sin, these elders sentence the young adulteress not to death or imprisonment, but to a unique humiliation. For the rest of her life, she is to wear the Scarlet Letter ("A" for Adultery) on her breast, and after her death it is to be the epitaph on her grave.
So begins Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel in which the religious legalism of his Puritan ancestors appears as an object of psychological horror. And though the social stigma that Hester bears proves, indeed, to be a blight on her womanhood, the person who really suffers the most, both mentally and physically, is her lover. We first see the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale on the day Hester stands before the pillory trembling beneath the scornful gaze of every eye in Salem. Dimmesdale, speaking as Hester's kindly pastor, begs her to denounce the father of her child so that he may be brought to repentance as well. Ironically, it is Dimmesdale whose lack of repentance works on his mind and health for the next seven years, until he can bear it no longer. Just as ironically, Dimmesdale's frailty and self-hatred give his ministry a glow of special sacredness, like one too good for this world and yet so down-to-earth that he can relate to the lowest person.
The minister's popularity only adds to his misery, his sense of unworthiness. But though he needs no help feeling wretched, he has it. His housemate and personal physician, the deformed Roger Chillingworth, is actually Hester Prynne's vengeful husband—a secret known only to her, and kept by her under a terrible threat. When Hester finally realizes how Chillingworth is haunting Dimmesdale to death, she tries to convince the clergyman to run away with her. But there can be no escape from the tragic doom of being publicly branded with their sin.
Many young people have been forced to read this book by some schoolteacher, and have perhaps hated it as a result. I was never forced to read it, so I came to it later in life and thought the world of it. I listened to an audio-book of it during a long road trip with my father, who fondly remembered having read it many years ago. We both shared many a sidelong glance of pleasure, and several chuckles at Hawthorne's witty way of describing things. That wit is just enough to lighten an otherwise heavy tale of guilt, revenge, and mental anguish—a tale of deeply personal pain, despair, and religious doubt amid an historic experiment in combining civil politics with the discipline of a strictly moralizing religious sect.
The Scarlet Letter is a tale that could provoke thought and discussion among groups of any religious persuasion, especially those who distinguish between "law and gospel." It is a story (I know this by experience) that could resonate with the uncertainties of anyone aspiring to be a servant of the church, and perhaps a cautionary tale for those responsible to care for the souls of others. It gives sympathy to religious and social nonconformists, and perhaps even prophesies the modern feminist movement. Written in 1850 (about the same time as Moby-Dick, which was dedicated to Hawthorne) by a descendant of one of the judges at the Salem witch trials, it tantalizingly foreshadows that hysteria with a spooky hint, or perhaps more than a hint, of witchcraft and the dark arts. It exercises the reader's ability to guess the truth without being directly told, and it beautifully demonstrates the possibility that a story's ending can be completely satisfying without being completely happy or sad. Readers impressed by the remarkable qualities of this, Hawthorne's best-known novel, may be interested in his other novels—The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and The Marble Faun—his short stories, of which the most popular collection seems to be Twice-Told Tales; and his two books of Greek myths adapted for children: A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys and Tanglewood Tales.
by Gregory Maguire
Recommended Ages: 10+
I have long hesitated to enter the unique fantasy world of the author of the Wicked series, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and Mirror, Mirror. Because of some disturbing buzz about the author's general approach to fairy-tale fantasy, and my disgust with some other authors' experiments along the same line, I thought it wise to let this popular bandwagon put a bit more distance behind it before deciding whether to jump on. In the meantime, a bargain-basement copy of this children's book featuring a "rogue tooth fairy" found its way onto my bookshelf, and my concerns about Maguire's other titles didn't seem to apply to it. So, at last, I cracked it open and peeked inside.
What I found was a delightful story about a newborn skibberee named What-the-Dickens (don't ask), who first opens his eyes upon the inside of a discarded tuna can, and forms his first ideas while being chased by a nasty cat named McCavity and dangled by a mother bird over the gaping beaks of her nestlings. How What-the-Dickens survives these perils, how he penetrates the clannish and fiercely territorial society of the skibbereen (a.k.a. tooth fairies), and how his nighttime adventure with a pretty, probationary Agent of Change named Pepper changes the lives of everyone in Pepper's colony—plus a terrifying old lady, a captive tiger, and a lonely little boy—are all part of a story a young man named Gage tells to his even younger cousins Zeke, Dinah, and Rebecca Ruth one terrifying night when a hurricane seems to have swept their parents, and the rest of the world, clean away.
The story Gage tells is an intelligent story, full of wonder and humor and touching humanity. When he is done telling it, the story leaves questions that an intelligent reader or listener (like Dinah, for example) may ask, but will have to be satisfied with not knowing the answer. In a similar way, the framing story of what has become, or will become, of Dinah's parents and the region they live in, will leave you with unanswered questions. Thus this story makes an interesting point about stories in general: as satisfying and convincing as they may be—as willing as you may be to believe in them—their relationship with reality is at best a mystery. And though each story may have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, if you think beyond those boundaries, you must face uncertainties—such as: Is there really such a thing as a happy ending? When real life moves on after the supposed happy ending of a story, does it necessarily stay happy? Or does that depend on the people living that life, and on what they make of it?