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100 Greatest Novels: The House of Mirth & The Alexandria Quartet

So I apologize for the length of time since the last 100 greatest novels post. I’ve only read two more from the list but the second one, The Alexandria Quartet, is actually 4 novels. There’s my excuse. Let’s get to it.

The_House_of_MirthThe House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Similar to Wharton previous novel on this list, The Age of Innocence, this story is set around the high society of New York City in the late 1800s. Following one members rise and eventual fall through society, the story is Wharton’s critique of the very society she cannot stop talking about. While I enjoyed the scenery and the historical context leading to the turn of the century, I’m not sure how necessary or relevant the novel is today. There is no discovery of a character’s psyche, there’s no groundbreaking reveal of a world we did not previously know about. And I know these things aren’t necessary for a novel to be read but when there are so many books written by so many people (and multiple by Edith Wharton), I just have a hard time seeing the point. The main character, Lily Bart, isn’t likable or hate-able enough to be worth reading about. At least not for the story alone. So, like The Age of Innocence, if you’re looking for an older version of Gossip Girl then go ahead and read this. Otherwise, let’s move on.

TheAlexandriaQuartetThe Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

Now, to completely change gears, I loved this quartet. And I am so glad I read all the books. They are utterly necessary to appreciate this masterpiece. So this tetralogy is set in Alexandria, Egypt, before and during World War II. The first three novels follow the same events from different perspectives and then the last novel is a few years after the aforementioned events. Let me explain a little more.

The first novel, Justine, follows the events of a love…square between the narrator, his live-in girlfriend, a woman named Justine, and Justine’s husband. The narrator and Justine are sleeping together and ultimately Justine’s husband ends up sleeping with the narrator’s girlfriend. The story is not told “in the order in which they took place — for that is history — but in the order in which they first became significant for me.” So each section and each chapter are just different scenes between these characters exploring their relationships and the search for what love really is. Through all this we meet all kinds of crazy, interesting, and hilarious characters that really give the story the color it deserves. Nobody in the love-square is interesting enough to push the story forward. At least not at first.

The second novel, Balthazar, completely upsets everything we learned in the first. The narrator, who we finally find out is named Darley, sends the manuscript of the first novel to Balthazar and Balthazar returns it with notes added all throughout the pages. Apparently Darley has everything wrong. This second book goes back through numerous events we already know about but with new information. New scenes that deepens the characters and the overall story are also added in. At this point, I’m going to be a little more vague about the details because I don’t want to ruin the books in case you’d like to read it. Anyways, this second novel is written like the first. Short scenes in no apparent order. But now with new information and proof that what Darley believed to be happening was actually a farce. Intriguing…

Now for the third novel. Mountolive. Mountolive is the name of a character that was maybe named two or three times in the second novel but whom we have never met. I don’t think he was ever mentioned in the first. This story is written in standard chronological, normal paragraph and chapter length narration. It backs up in time to when Justine’s husband (Nessim) is a young man and his mother falls in love with a British dude named Mountolive. We follow their relationship through letters as he travels the world until we get to the point where the first two novels’ stories are. Then we get the full story of Justine and Nessim’s relationship. And. let. me. just. tell. you. Nothing we knew or believed or assumed or imagined is anywhere remotely close to what’s going on. This whole story breaks the confines of exploring love and relationships and bursts into the world of geopolitics, religion, diplomacy, and the history of Egypt and the Middle East. We are bombarded with Coptic stories, Muslim stories, British stories, Bedouin stories. We have a whole new world that did not exist to us. Or Darley. And it’s incredibly rewarding to discover. I’m excited for you.

And that brings us to the fourth and final novel, Clea. Now we are a few years past all the above events, we are back with Darley as the narrator, and yet we retain the writing style of the third novel. We go back through all the previously introduced characters, dead or alive, and kind of tie up their stories while continuing the original purpose of the first novel: Darley’s exploration of love and relationships. But with a new subject, Clea. This final novel is a darker, more melancholy, and yet more beautiful. Alexandria is in the midst of the nightly bombardments of World War II while the last remaining characters deal with the deaths, revelations, and relationships of the previous novels. And everything is ended with a poetically beautiful, bittersweet finale that we didn’t know we needed all along.

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Whew, that last one took a lot out of me. As we get closer, I’m getting very excited and very scared to come to another James Joyce novel. But we still have a few more before that. Onwards we go.

 

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100 Greatest Novels: The Maltese Falcon, Parade’s End, The Age of Innocence, & Zuleika Dobson

It has been way too long since my last post. I have been able to read four more of the 100 greatest novels since the last post (impressive, huh…) amongst all the other things going on in my life. The Thanksgiving break gave me time to catch up on some reading and I was able to finish the last two novels we’re talking about today.

MalteseFalcon1930The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The first book is a detective novel written in 1929. Considered the novel that created the dark and brooding private detective, The Maltese Falcon follows Sam Spade as he tries to solve a murder while being questioned as a suspect. The novel was a fun, simple read with all the things you expect from a crime novel. While I did enjoy the novel, it did have numerous sexist themes and scenes that I thought were unnecessary to the novel. All in all I would recommend this novel if you’re a fan of the crime genre but if not, you can go ahead and skip it.

Some_Do_Not_(Ford_Madox_Ford_novel)Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

I was actually really excited about this novel because I enjoyed Ford’s first novel in this list, The Good Soldier. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch played the main character in BBC’s adaptation of this novel and I love him as an actor. With all that being said, I just could not get into this novel. The writing was dense. The story was slow. The characters were unlikeable and unbelievable. The progression of events were disjointed and hard to follow. If you’re wanting to read a British novel written around World War I, there are plenty of other choices to make. Originally written as four separate novels, the tetralogy was later combined under the one title, Parade’s End. Honestly, I was only able to get through the first novel which was published under the title Some Do Not... . I decided not to continue because I wasted so much time struggling through the first one, I didn’t think I would ever finish all four

220px-TheAgeOfInnocenceThe Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The first novel written by a woman to win the Pulitzer Price in Fiction, The Age of Innocence reads like the television show Gossip Girl set in the late 1800s. Following the upper class families of New York, the story is a critic of the morals and traditions of this society. The novels revolves around the introduction of a woman with questionable morals and possible disgraces in her past and how this will shake the society’s belief system of what a woman should be, what a marriage should be, and how people of a society should handle outsiders. Without being a complete condemnation of this society, the novel is a great look into what New York was like in the late 1800s (at least for the wealthy). The details of the society parties, balls, dinners, and vacations make this book’s characters incredibly relatable even 150 years after they are placed. I really enjoyed this book and think anybody who loves New York or a good doomed love story should read it. Also, I don’t usually use this space to try to sell books but amazon.com has the paperback on sale right now for $3.15 (and free shipping if you have Prime like I do). So if you’d like to buy the book, just click on the cover to the left. All the images I use of the book covers are links to purchase the book.

220px-Zuleika-dobsonZuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm

This is the first novel I’ve read in a while that had me laughing out loud over and over. I’m not sure how much of the novel was supposed to be funny but it is a satirical look at university life at Oxford University in the early 1900s. The story follows Zuleika Dobson, a beautiful woman who is famous for being a mediocre magician, and her trip to the campus. All the undergraduates fall in love with her and hilarity ensues. My favorite part of the novel is when halfway through, the story starts to be written from a first-person narrator who begins speaking to the reader. He explains how he is able to know the thoughts and actions of all the characters (power given to him by Zeus as a favor for the Greek Muse Clio). He argues with the reader, bargains with the reader, and justifies his decision to the reader all while telling the story. And as the story goes, it becomes more and more ridiculous. But really, just the right amount of ridiculous. And I enjoyed every minute of reading it.

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Alright, sorry to have to drop so many on you right now. Hopefully I’ll be able to get a few more to you before the end of the year. Next is The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, number 60 in the list. I’m getting excited because I’m getting closer and closer to my favorite novel. You’ll find out soon enough.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2014 in 100 Greatest Novels, Book Review, Literature

 

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