Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

Anyone following my various social media accounts might have noticed stray mentions of reading Dickens over the last couple of months. It felt wonderful. I haven't read a full-length Dickens novel since reading Martin Chuzzlewit aloud to the family (2014, I think?) and reading Oliver Twist in the same year.

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.

The Book

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*

My Thoughts 
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.

10 comments:

  1. I read Our Mutual Friend a few years ago. I think Dickens is *that* author whose books make you feel like you've lived several lives while reading their books. That's how I recall feeling, during and after reading Our Mutual Friend, anyhow. :)
    Oh, and you NAILED that plot synopsis. *gazes admiringly* ^_^

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    1. Yes, yes, yes! I love how many new friends I have in the fictional realm after reading a Dickens. So many lives to experience, all fresh and lovable. :)

      Why thank-you!! *blushes*

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  2. Oh, I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Ben-Hur. I read it for school a couple of years ago, and it's definitely worth the effort. :)

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  3. Yes, I'm looking forward to your review of Ben-Hur too! It used to be one of my favorites, but it's been many years since I've read it. Thanks for all your hard work reading and discerning and sharing! Sarah : D

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    1. You are so welcome, Sarah! Thank-you for stopping by and brightening my day with your comment!

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  4. Okay, first of all that synopsis was brilliant (I could never write ones like that myself - WOW! *claps hands in applause to my Lady Bibliophile*!

    And well done on completing Our Mutual Friend, Schuyler - what a chunker!

    It's a pity that the book tends to drag in parts and is over-wordy (my major complaint with Dickens in general), but also as Lydia mentioned, you feel like you've lived a lifetime with the characters and people in the story after a Dickens read - it's quite wonderful! :)

    I'm looking forward to reading "Our Mutual Friend" sometime, but my next Dickens is probably going to be one of the three "Bleak House" "Great Expectations" or "Martin Chuzzlewit" - tips on which one to pick up next would be fantastic! :). However, I'm excited for you to watch "Our Mutual Friend" miniseries, and then we can talk about it and discuss the story - I agree, it is a wonderful and very redemptive tale, and I just love the characters (haha, or most of them anyway! :P). Actually, I was brought to tears a few times by the end of the miniseries; wasn't that twist at the end a shocker? It took me by surprise for sure! ^_^ Speaking of which, from whose perspective mainly do we get the story in the book? I'd be really curious, because in the film there's a voice-over often from the steward of Mr. Boffin ^_^.

    Ooh, I'm excited for you to read Ben-Hur, Schuyler - that's a great book! I'd love to do a re-read of it sometime. After you've read the book, you really must watch the Charles Heston film adaption as well (if you haven't already) - it is a phenomenal movie and so beautiful and powerful. It won 11 oscars, the only other film aside from Return of the King to receive so many awards.

    Great review as always, Schuyler!

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    1. Why thank-you, luv! ^_^ I'm so tickled it turned out well.

      Oo, I can't wait for you to read those Dickens books! I think I would recommend GE or BH first--either one you like. They're both filled with drama and fun, so I think you'll be happy with either one of them. The heroine in BH should be just your cup of tea, so maybe that one!

      The perspective in Our Mutual Friend is omniscient, so we take turns in different heads, but still with that "disconnected narrator" sort of feel. Bella and the Secretary's feelings are both shown, as well as Bradley Headstone, and perhaps some others.

      I've heard amazing things about the Ben Hur movie adaptation! Can't wait to see it sometime!

      Love you lots! <3
      Schuyler

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    2. The thought of reading from Mr. Headstone's perspective is a bit depressing, haha ;)

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    3. Haha, yes, it was intense at a couple of spots!

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