The next three from the 100 greatest novels were interesting in how different they were. I liked each one more than the one before it. We’ll get into the reasons below. I’m excited to talk about the last one though. Let’s go ahead and get to it.
Here we are again with another British novel set in London in the early 1900s. I’m getting fairly tired of these novels but I feel bad for doing that. I would probably thoroughly enjoy some of them if it wasn’t for reading so many during this list. Anyway, let’s get to this novel. Like all of them, you have the one character that doesn’t fit into London society. This time it’s Portia, who moves in with her half-brother after her mother and their shared father dies. She, of course, falls in love with a friend of the family who tries to straddle his relationship with Portia and his obligations towards London society. The one thing that makes this story interesting is Portia’s age. She’s only 16 when she moves to London so we have somewhat of a coming-of-age story. We get the frustrations of a teenager towards her authority figures but how much authority can her half-brother and sister-in-law really hold over her?
So if you’ve read any of Conrad’s novels, you’ll know what to expect. The story usually has something to do with the sea and ships. And many of Conrad’s novels are structured by being a story told by Charles Marlow. He is usually with his fellow shipmates and he narrates the story. All of his narration is in quotations so any quotes told in the story use single quotation marks. Then it get’s real confusing when you have characters in the story quoting somebody else. Sometimes you end up with 3 or 4 levels of quotation marks! Once you get past all that and the introduction of the story into why this Jim character is named Lord Jim, it gets really interesting. Jim ends up in a secluded village and becomes a leader, a lord, to the people. And it’s a fascinating transition and ultimate ending to the story. Quick note, this is free on the Kindle.
Really, I just rushed through writing the above paragraphs because I’m so excited to talk about this novel. I wasn’t familiar with Doctorow when I started Ragtime and I did not read any synopsis of the story. I assumed it might have something to do with Scott Joplin or the musical genre ragtime. The novel alluded to the genre but it didn’t play a huge role.
Anyway, this book. This book is what I want every book I read to be. I had a hard time starting the next novel in the list because I just wanted to read everything by Doctorow. Let me tell you what I’m so excited about. This novel combined fact and fiction in such a flawless, beautiful way that I wanted to cry with joy. Historical characters are treated with the same care as fictional characters. Historical events are intertwined with fictional storylines. I’m going to quote Wikipedia’s paragraph about this because it explains it fairly well:
The novel is unusual for the irreverent way that historical figures and fictional characters are woven into the narrative, making for surprising connections and linking different events and trains of thought about fame and success, on the one hand, and poverty and racism on the other. Harry Houdini plays a prominent yet incidental part, reflecting on success and mortality. Arch-capitalist financier J.P. Morgan, pursuing his complex delusions of grandeur, is delivered a plainly spoken comeuppance from down-to-earth Henry Ford. Socialite Evelyn Nesbit becomes involved with the slum family and is aided by the anarchist agitator Emma Goldman. The black moderate politician Booker T. Washington tries to negotiate with Coalhouse Walker, without success.
I feel like a novel like this does better than any textbook or biography or history book at making the reader understand what a time period was like. We can google names and dates. But how do we understand what the wealthy and the poverty-stricken felt? How can we know what the average person felt about certain events or even decades? Can we know how the heroes viewed the citizens and vice versa? We can, but with only extensive research into the histories of the rich and famous and into the journals of the not rich and not famous, extensive research into the biographies of the mammoths of history and the news articles of the mundane events around town. Who has time for that? So read E. L. Doctorow. At least read Ragtime. I can’t vouch for the rest of his novels yet.
Alright, next up is The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett, number 87 on the list. We’re getting seriously close to the end. What will I do with myself?