Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #87

Title: The Old Wives' Tale
Author: Arnold Bennett
Judgin' the Book By Its Cover: Well... it reinforces the point that the book is about old broads...

Thoughts: I had quite a bit of difficulty getting into this book when I first began reading it, but warmed up to it more as I went along. The plot starts out feeling very familiar and cliched: two sisters living in the English countryside have markedly different personalities and, accordingly, live very different lives. The elder of the two, Constance, is steady, patient, and good, and she marries her father's industrious assistant and works alongside him in the family business until she has a child to spoil. The younger sister, beautiful, passionate, and proud Sophia, impetuously elopes with a (gasp!) travelling salesman and moves to (GASP!) Paris where she engages in frivolities until her husband (SERIOUSLY, I CAN'T BREATHE) leaves her. Blah blah blah, different people lead different lives...

Luckily, Bennett turns away from cliches somewhere in the middle of this 615-page book and really delves into what life is like for these two women. As their paths become more unpredictable, I became much more invested in their fates. I also thought that the observations he makes about growing older were very interesting to read as a person in my 20's.

Unfortunately, as I approached the end of the book, I started to dislike it again. Bennett seems to take the position that life is, in essence, meaningless, and regardless of how you live your life, you will gradually lose life until you die. Moreover, his observations about relationships are hardly heartwarming-- he seems to view humans as solitary creatures and all of the friendships/marriages/families he depicts are terribly flawed. He seems to view people as unable to experience happiness or to express themselves honestly in any relationship, which is a fairly depressing worldview.

In addition, this is another book to file into the category of "Wow, British People Look Down Their Noses At Everyone Else" books (previous example here). Today's special: French people! Here's a description of les parisiennes from the book: "[they had] violently red lips, powdered cheeks, cold, hard eyes, self-possessed arrogant faces, and insolent bosoms". I don't even know what that last thing means, but it doesn't sound good...

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