Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Magnificent Ambersons - Booth Tarkington

For reasons unbeknownst to me, I love a good period novel.  Not just anything will do.  I hate the vapid, shallow attempts lining the shelves of Christian book stores and chick-lit sections everywhere. Certain historical periods hold no allure for me.  I find it difficult to isolate exactly what it is I love about certain books in this genre.  Good writing certainly plays into it, along with good characters.  My classic go-to for satiating this need is L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series.

When I picked up The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington, I had no expectations that it would fall into this category for me.  I knew absolutely nothing about the story or author.  The sole reason it came to my attention lies with the 100 Best Novels challenge.  Once again, my literary adventure has proven itself worthwhile, presenting me with a charming story.

Tarkington's story centers around a wealthy family living in America at a time of cultural shift.  The Amberson family lives off of old money while a new breed of American millionaires are rising from the industrial boom - around the turn of the twentieth century for those keeping track.  Though set in Indianapolis, Tarkington's home town, the location is hardly mentioned and could be nearly anywhere. Oh the glorious Midwest, the epitome of relatable normal.  I have got to get out of here.

A little research shows Ambersons to be the second of a trilogy by Tarkington.  For whatever reason, the other two novels garnered far less attention than their middle sibling.  I cannot speak to what Amberson stories they cover.  Book Two focuses on George Amberson Minafer, son of Isabel, grandson of the Amberson patriarch.

George, from his birth, is spoiled and coddled by his mother.  His docile - and later deceased - father gave George his name, but little else.  George identifies as an Amberson in every way possible.  He believes unyieldingly in the sentiment that being things is better than doing things.  This debate pervades the novel.

George, in his selfish way, falls for Lucy Morgan, daughter of Eugene Morgan, teenage suitor of Isabel Amberson and up-and-coming automobile tycoon.  Lucy is sagacious in the face of George's arrogance. She continually resists his proposal; her words are the first rejections George ever knows.  Meanwhile, after her husband's untimely death, Isabel rekindles her sparks with Eugene Morgan.  This infuriates George and set him on a warpath against Morgan, despite his feelings for Morgan's daughter.

To me, the relationship between George and Lucy was the most interesting part of the book.  They both do care for the other, yet their stars are crossed by their very natures.  George, impetuous and egocentric, cannot understand why sweet but firm Lucy will not formalize their engagement.  It is evident over and over that Lucy understands what kind of man George is.  She deserves someone far superior to him; and yet it is George who has captured her heart.  She has a beautiful soliloquy at one point revealing the conflict in her heart.  I found that moment to be one of the most revealing and poignant moments of the text.

Tarkington's ability to tell multiple stories on multiple levels is clearly what landed him on the prestigious Modern Library list, albeit sliding in at number 100.  On the surface, the book tells George's life story.  The second layer details the decline of the Amberson family.  As new money rises in the form of Eugene Morgan and others, the Ambersons find themselves poorer and poorer.   George begins his life without a financial care in the world; he ends it working a dangerous job to make ends meet unable to live above the most meager standard of living.  Still deeper, Tarkington deals with the cultural change in America at this time.  The Amberson family represents a great number of historical families who suddenly discovered their names meant far less than their accomplishments.  As Carnegie and Rockefeller made their fortunes, they displaced families whose names are all but lost to history.

Tarkington explores this era of history with a deft voice.  He does not present a historical lecture, but rather weaves it into a captivating story where the characters speak history through their very actions. It did not surprise me to learn that Ambersons won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1919.  On a side note, I'm proud to recognize this book as the second Pulitzer winner I have read this year. 

Tarkington attended Princeton, though he left one course shy of graduation.  The melding of his Midwestern roots and his Ivy League education produced something magnificent in Ambersons (pun intended).  His complexities of story and character are fluid and easy to read while retaining a depth few authors achieve.

I could not recommend this book to everyone; I didn't speak a word of it to Kevin.  I can easily see how some would claim it as boring or too slow.  Tarkington's skill does not lie in cliffhangers or invented worlds like some current bestsellers.  This is the kind of literature that makes you a better reader, a better person, not just a water cooler conversationalist.

What have you read lately that makes you a better reader?  Do you enjoy books like this or do you prefer sticking with easy reads for entertainment?

Pages: 288
Date Completed: July 27, 2013

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