Category Archives: Classics

‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham

How could I not love The Painted Veil? W. Somerset Maugham is a superb storyteller with a keen eye for human behavior and is at his best in this novel. Through his strangely likeable protagonist, Kitty Fane, Maugham wields a powerful story that triumphs the human capacity for change and redemption.

The Painted Veil opens as Kitty is deplorably caught in the act with her lover, the handsome, shallow government official, Charles Townsend. Over the next hundred or so pages, Kitty’s husband, serious bacteriologist Walter Fane, develops a plan to sever Kitty’s relationship with Townsend and take her away with him to Mei-tan-fu, a cholera-infected province of China, where he has volunteered himself to serve as a physician and researcher.

Uncomfortable as it was to witness Walter’s plan come to fruition, this section of the novel serves another purpose by providing the reader with background information about Kitty’s childhood and her courtship with Walter. Essentially, the beautiful Kitty was bred to wed and ultimately had to settle for a man she did not love due to fickleness and indecision during her period of “presentation.” Kitty’s mother is an ambitious woman whose aim it was to set her daughters up for a life of sophistication she herself was unable to obtain. When Kitty marries the unimpressive academic Walter Fane, she feels slighted, and her affair with Townsend offers her an escape from her disappointing reality.

All things considered, Kitty Fane should not be considered a sympathetic character. However, due to Maugham’s expert pacing and character development, Kitty’s behavior is perfectly logical. Kitty was brought up with the understanding that one’s marriage is the determinate of one’s self worth. And because Kitty’s match was not ideal—both romantically and fiscally—she demonstrates little loyalty to it.

However, what makes this novel great is Kitty’s ability to grow and change. Kitty’s self-confidence and sense of worth is destroyed by her actions. Yet surprisingly, she accepts responsibility for her actions and looks to improve circumstances for future generations of her family. I sympathized with Kitty at her lowest moments and rooted for her as she picked herself up and found a way to start over despite everything that had happened to her.

Overall, I really loved The Painted Veil, one of Maugham’s many classics. Due to the many favorable reviews of the movie adaptation I look forward to seeing it sometime soon.

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark

I tend to avoid short novels. I’m either in the mood to work through a collection of short stories (with their clearly defined stopping points) or spend a good chunk of time with a big, meaty novel. Muriel Spark’s classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, however, has taught me that the novella deserves a place in my reading life as well. Strange and concise, Spark’s best-known work offers a unique perspective I had yet to encounter in literature, and one that I am now glad to have read.

Miss Jean Brodie is the unconventional teacher of ten-year-olds at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a stuffy Catholic school in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the early 1930s. At first, Miss Brodie’s unorthodox teaching methods are relatively harmless: she selects six girls—the “Brodie set”—to serve as her “crème de la crème” as she encourages them to appreciate Beauty and Culture by escorting them to concerts and museums and reading Jane Eyre aloud to them. However, once the girls graduate from her tutelage to the Senior School, Miss Brodie’s behavior becomes increasingly inappropriate and serves not the girls’ well-being, but her own selfish aims. Though one of her own ultimately betrays her, the girls of the Brodie set are forever influenced by the lessons they learned as teenagers from their Machiavellian instructor.

What I loved most about this concise but psychologically complex novella is the fresh perspective that it offers. World War I shocked the United States and Europe with the barbarity of its violence and the unprecedented number of casualties the new style of battle bred. As a result, a myriad of new voices emerged from the war telling stories that American and European literature had never heard before. Amazingly, the experiences of the women affected by the decimation of so many young men have largely been ignored. The story of Miss Jean Brodie helps to remedy that deficit.

As a young woman when the war began, Miss Brodie, like many women, suffered the loss of her fiancé. Also like many other women of her time, Miss Brodie is unable to secure another prospect and dedicates the abundant energy of her young adulthood—her “prime”—to the education of the girls she instructs at the Marcia Blaine School. However, the loss of her fiancé, and thus the family life she had surely imagined for herself, tinges Miss Brodie with a bitterness that cultivates the manipulative, selfish behavior she exhibits. Miss Brodie’s actions are disturbing, but her motivations are realistic considering her experiences, and therefore surely worth telling.

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a strange but intriguing book. The length and contents of the novel seem perfectly suited for film adaptation so I look forward to checking out the movie soon!

‘Main Street’ by Sinclair Lewis

My, it has been a while! After a long break without writing (but not without reading) I am back at it and kicking it off with a review of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a re-read and favorite of mine.

Main Street was originally published in 1920, but owing to Lewis’s powerful gift for observation, the novel truly resonates with the modern reader. Main Street opens with the marriage of its protagonist, Carol, to Dr. Will Kennicott, general practitioner to Gopher Prairie, an archetypal Midwest Small Town (capitals intended). Upon her arrival to “G.P.” Carol is brimming with ideas to “improve” the town but finds herself continually thwarted by the townspeople’s penchant for pettiness and resistance to change.

Unfortunately, Carol does not rise to the challenge. She is unfocused in her efforts to reform Gopher Prairie and lacks the resolve to persist when she encounters adversity. Even worse, she takes each defeat personally, closing herself off from potentially meaningful relationships with her neighbors.

Though I often found Carol’s lack of focus frustrating, I couldn’t help but sympathize with her. Fiction oftentimes deals with the adventures of the exceptional, the go-getters who possess the fearlessness required to accomplish their goals and encourage real progress. While these characters are inspiring and interesting to read about, the real world is full of far more Carol Kennicotts. The rest of us, like Carol, often have a vision of the world we would like to see but find the path to creating it a bit opaque.

One of the chief criticisms plaguing Main Street’s reputation is its allegedly unsatisfying ending. I admit that beginning with Carol’s excursion to D.C., the plot does feel a bit rushed and the conclusion a little hasty. Despite that, I found several points of encouragement. Carol finally seems to recognize where she can be effective and find meaningful purpose: she can provide her children with the resources they need to become open-minded adults and, more impressively, begins to open her own mind to the beauty there is in being an active member of a marriage, family and community. There is a powerful moment at the end of the book when it occurs to Carol that not only is her husband an individual with his own world view, but so is Ethel Clark, a woman she previously dismissed as simply a small town wife in need of a social awakening. Recognizing this is a huge breakthrough in Carol’s development as a character, and a huge relief for me, the sympathetic reader.

The reason I love this book so much is Lewis’s clear representation of what it means to be a human being, whether it’s 1920 or nearly 100 years later in 2012. Lewis gets at the root of why we act the way we do and, to be frank, flays us alive for it. Though it isn’t always pretty, seeing oneself on the page the way one can in Main Street is strangely comforting. We aren’t perfect, but at least we aren’t alone.

‘A Meaningful Life’ by L.J. Davis

Every once and a while I stumble across a book that is so eerily relatable I can hardly put it down. L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life—a story of “redemption through real estate”—is one of those books. The theme of stagnation permeates throughout the story, warning its readers of the consequences of passivity.

Lowell Lake has just turned thirty and has come to the stark realization that he hasn’t done anything remarkable with his life. He recounts an aimless youth that yielded him a Stanford education (the story of its financing is one of many very funny sections of the book), a mismatched marriage and a big move to New York City. Lowell’s dreams of writing a novel are dashed shortly after the move so he takes a post at a plumbers’ trade magazine and spends his next nine years simply going through the motions. It is only when Lowell comes across a dilapidated old mansion in Brooklyn that he becomes proactive with his life. Lowell risks his life savings and sacrifices his relationship with his wife—or rather as he comes to realize, his relationship with his marriage—to restore the mansion to its former glory.

Once the novel hits its groove, its message to me was clear: be proactive with your life, or suffer the consequence of unhappiness. Lowell lets life happen to him. He proves to be competent enough to graduate college and charming enough to find a spouse, but that is where his accomplishments end. In fact, Lowell’s post-collegiate life is so uneventful that the author doesn’t have to waste his time remarking on it. However, once Lowell takes himself out of his comfort zone and throws himself into the renovation of the house in Brooklyn, the sources of his unhappiness become clear: he married the wrong woman and pursued the wrong profession. However, instead of addressing his mistakes, Lowell acts out in a different way, making for quite the surprise ending.

While there are a few sections of the book that come close to dragging, Davis’s expert style and brutally hilarious observations keep the pages turning. Even when I noticed myself beginning to lose interest during the Lakes’ initial tour of the mansion, Davis had me laughing out loud at the “soul-food” comment and Lowell’s subsequent mortification.

Also, while I found Lowell to be frustratingly realistic and relatable, unfortunately none of the other characters rise above the level of caricature. Lowell’s wife (her first name is rarely used) is nothing more than a materialistic nag and her parents the stereotypical difficult in-laws. While the novel is short enough that the lack of character depth doesn’t take away much from the overall effect of the story, the book would have certainly benefited from a better-developed supporting cast.

L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life is a great read from the treasure trove that is New York Review Books. Their site is highly recommended for anyone at a loss for what to read next!

‘The Professor’s House’ by Willa Cather

Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House is a strange book. The novel begins with the story of a history professor as he reluctantly moves from his beloved residence to a new home, transitions to the personal history of the professor’s star student and ends with the professor contemplating the life he, until recently, believed brought him great happiness. This unique structure coupled with Cather’s insights on aging and happiness rendered The Professor’s House, in my opinion, one great book.

Professor Godfrey St. Peter has lead a charmed life. He has traveled extensively, married well at an early age and achieved great success as a father and scholar. However, his family is perplexed to discover that the professor is obstinately resistant to a move from their longstanding, “perfectly imperfect” home to a new, state-of-the-art house. The professor decides to maintain an office in the old house and as a result, begins to see the daily drama of his family life in a new, troublesome way. St. Peter finds events he would have once found endearing, like his eldest daughter Rosamond’s lavish shopping trip in Chicago, unbearable. Through the journals of his former protégé, Tom Outland, St. Peter is reunited with the solitude of youth and mourns its loss with regret. As the novel reaches its close, St. Peter appears to come to terms with the death of his former self, but refuses to forget the person he once was.

While many of Willa Cather’s novels are required reading for high school students, The Professor’s House is certainly a better fit for adult readers. Cather’s novel asks the reader to examine the difficulty we have as adults to reconcile our younger lives with our mature selves. Though Cather does not necessarily offer a solution for the consequences of this examination, she does provide a kindred spirit in Professor Godfrey St. Peter.

In fact, I was so absorbed with the professor’s introspection that it was easy to overlook certain elements of The Professor’s House that have bothered me in other books. Perhaps the novel’s primary offense is its failure to resolve some of its storylines. At the end of the novel, I was left wanting more with regard to Tom Outland’s relationship with Rosamond and the professor’s adversarial relationship with Dr. Langtry. However, even this is a minor defect in an otherwise wonderful novel.

Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House was a great read and a good representation of what I love to find in books. I look forward to reading more from this great author.

‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Milan Kundera

Great novels vary in infinite ways, but undoubtedly, each of them offers its readers a glimpse of the mystery of the human condition. Milan Kundera’s modern classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being certainly falls into this category. Also, like many great novelists, Kundera not only exposes his readers to a better understanding of modern life, he offers a solution for the inevitably sad truths he reveals. For this reason, The Unbearable Lightness of Being now ranks among my all-time favorite novels.

The novel begins by presenting Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return. With this theory, Nietzsche argues that “everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum”. Kundera then places that theory in opposition with Parmenides’s theory of life as “light”. The author uses these concepts to posit that every person has only one opportunity at life, and because this life occurs only once in the grand scheme of the universe, it is intrinsically meaningless. The German phrase “einmal ist keinmal” (“once is nothing”) is invoked frequently throughout the novel to summarize this point. With these notions as the backdrop, Kundera then begins to weave his narrative of four interconnected characters, two of which I will discuss, whose lives aid in the demonstration of these concepts.

Early in the novel, which takes place in 1968 during what is now referred to as the Prague Spring, we are introduced to Tomas, a recently divorced surgeon who, as an unapologetic womanizer, is very pleased to have returned to bachelorhood. Tomas subscribes emphatically to the theory that “once is nothing” and feels he is living life as it should be lived as he takes pleasure in work and women. Tereza, however, comes of age in an environment that thwarted any expressions of individualism or intellectualism, and as an adult, is in a constant search for “greater beauty”. As a result of a series of fortuitous circumstances, Tomas and Tereza meet, fall in love and eventually marry. However, because Tomas refuses to renounce his philandering ways and Tereza continues to hold to an ideal of fidelity, the marriage is in a constant state of discord.

Due to the political climate in Prague and his inability to condone the Communist regime, Tomas’s career suffers a series of serious setbacks, eventually relegating him to the position of window washer. The result of which is Tomas’s realization that his true chosen path in life, his “es muss sein” (“it must be”), is his career in medicine. Tomas’s logic tells him that his success and ability in the field are the result of choice and hard work, unlike the series of chance encounters that lead to his relationship with Tereza. However, as the end of the novel draws near, Tomas, living peacefully in the country with Tereza, finds a purer brand of happiness he hasn’t experienced before. Despite the fact that his love for Tereza does not fall in accordance with his view of the world (he did not choose her; he is not sexually exclusive with her), Tomas is more at peace with her than ever before in his life.

I am very glad to have finally read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This novel meets every expectation I have of a “great novel” and has left me thinking about it long after the final page.

‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen

I have to say, I enjoyed Persuasion a whole lot more than I did Pride and Prejudice. Like the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion’s Elliots are a self-important clan, making for some great comedy when in opposition against their rebelliously modest daughters. However, unlike Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot is an adult, and therefore much more equipped to comprehend and analyze the action of the novel in a mature, comprehensive way. Anne’s thoughtful take on both society and love render her a heroine to truly admire.

The plot of Persuasion begins eight years after the ill-fated relationship between the young Anne Elliot and upstart seaman Frederick Wentworth has reached its demise. Anne, the daughter of a proud father and the favorite of her late mother’s closest confidante Lady Russell, allows herself to be persuaded to end the relationship. Sir Walter, Anne’s father and head of the Elliot family, disapproves of Frederick’s lack of wealth and prestige and Lady Russell, Anne’s most trustworthy advisor, condemns his unproven, yet excessive, ambition. However, much to the entire society’s surprise, eight years after Anne ends the affair Frederick returns as the wealthy and accomplished Captain Wentworth.

While the focus of the novel revolves around the rekindling of the romance between Anne and Captain Wentworth, Austen’s novel is at its best when it allows Anne to discourse on subjects ranging from redemption to poetry to passion in men and women. Atypical of most romantic heroines, Anne is considered a bit older at twenty-seven. However, instead of detracting from the appeal of the romance, Anne’s maturity succeeds in adding thoughtful insight to the charming affair that unfolds.

While I still do not consider myself one of Austen’s greatest fans, Persuasion did much to improve my opinion of the renowned author. I look forward to reading others’ reviews and comments on what I now consider to be Jane Austen’s best work.