Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
Pretty shocking for my favorite author. (Yes, I read A Christmas Carol last year, but I don't really count that as full length.)
It was with great anticipation I picked up Our Mutual Friend. I had heard excellent things about the movie, but with Dickens I always make myself read the book first, so I determined that since 2016 was the Year of Big Books, I would choose a Dickens for my first one.
Wealth is not always a good thing.
Rich Mr. Harmon is dead, and leaves all his property to his son, John Harmon, on condition that John will marry Bella Wilfer. If he will not marry Bella, the estate will revert to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, an older couple of simple good-heartedness and no aspirations.
Then John Harmon is found murdered, and Bella Wilfer is left without husband and prospects.
The Boffins, generous people, take Bella Wilfer in to share their wealth. They meet a new tier of society, from the scheming Lammles to the ambitious Veneerings, and in their efforts to live up to their station, start getting seriously mixed up. Bella Wilfer rejects the suit of a good man for the pursuit of a wealthy husband, and Mr. Boffin shows signs of growing miserly with his windfall of cash. John Harmon's murderer is still unknown, and people suspect a Themes corspe robber, Gaffer Hexam, of doing the deed. Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of Gaffer Hexam, is striving her best to live decently in spite of the cloud of her father's actions, an unwanted suitor, and a suitor she thinks she can never deserve. With blackmail on the tail of the Boffins, and murder threatening the person Lizzie Hexam holds dearest, they desperately need a savior who can help them out of their predicaments. Our Mutual Friend is a tale of love, murder, intrigue, and the corruption of money--Dickens' last completed novel.
*collapses because book synopses of Dickens are exhausting*
While I enjoy a chunky book and have no complaints to make about Dickens in general, I thought that Our Mutual Friend could have benefited from having a few thousand words shaved off. It took me over two months to read, due to life circumstances that made concentrating for long periods of time extremely difficult. For that reason, I give my criticism lightly knowing that the fault may have rested with me. However, I think he didn't have enough big plot points and tension to carry the first half of the book, though the second half, and especially the last quarter, improved considerably in the pacing department. There were sometimes in the first sections that I was downright bored.
In spite of my pacing complaints, the characters and redemption in this book are some of the dearest and best of his novels. Dickens seems to have grown gentler in his latter days, and in all his books, he can have some incredibly sweet and lovable characters. Our Mutual Friend is no exception. Because of the twisting of the plot I can't talk about my favorite characters in a review like I could in other books, but I was heartily glad at the romances, redemption, and downright shocking twists in the character arcs of the people I cared most about. I can say though, that I was deeply glad for Mr. Wilfer's finding happiness in spite of his less than ideal home life.
Dickens primarily addresses the issue of money in this book: how money can falsify friendship, corrupt ambition, and destroy character. But in his side plot, he addresses the issue of workhouses, in the character of old Betty Higden. Betty is terrified she'll end up in the workhouse one day and does everything she can to keep herself and her grandchild from that dreadful fate. Dickens uses her fear and wretched life as a rebuke to the lack of reform and good care to be found in the workhouses of his day.
Also, as an interesting side note, Dickens' portrayal of Jews in this story is an extremely positive one, much different from Fagin in Oliver Twist. Some people think Fagin revealed Dickens as an antisemite, but after he disabused that notion, Riah is believed to be his way of portraying the Jewish people positively in his stories.
While I wouldn't suggest choosing Our Mutual Friend first if you've never read a Dickens, I highly recommend reading it after you have a few of his novels under your belt. The characters are worth knowing, the story is a heartwarming and engaging one, and I can't wait to see the movie version soon of which I've heard such high reports.
My next Dickens will probably be A Child's History of England. Since I need to do some research on the 100 Years' War, I'm greatly looking forward to digging into this book sometime in 2016!
But Ben Hur is my next Big Book in the queue.