The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

March 6, 2009

the-way-we-live-now One of my goals is to read all of the novels chosen by the Observer (UK) for their list of the 100 best books of all time. I first learned about the list about four years ago (it was published in 2003), and had already read a decent number of the choices. Since then, I try to read at least four or five titles from the list every year, so at this point I’m about 70 percent through. Not bad for me!

The latest title I tackled from the list was The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. I was a bit apprehensive about reading this novel because even though I love Victorian literature, Trollope’s name hardly gets mentioned in the same breath as Thackeray, Dickens, and others from the period, so I didn’t know what to expect. This would be my first foray into Trollope’s works — and the length of the novel was a daunting from the outset. But, I ended up loving this book and am looking forward to reading more from this tremendous writer!

Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The Way We Live Now is a sweeping epic of a novel with an ensemble cast of characters, so it would be impossible for me to provide a thorough summary here. The book follows a group of social climbers in London of the 1870s, and shows just how utterly corrupt and bereft of morals people could be back then (as now).

The main figure in the novel is Augustus Melmotte, a foreigner recently arrived in London. He is immediately accepted by the men of society because of his immense wealth, which is indeed all anyone can seem to talk about regarding the man. It’s unknown just how vast Melmotte’s fortune is, or how he attained it — though there are rumors that he might be a “swindler” of some sort. No matter, though. As long as Melmotte throws ostentatious parties and backs business ventures by his peers, he’s considered to be ok.

Most of the other characters in the novel are connected to Melmotte in some way. First, there are two or three young men who aim to be suitors of Melmotte’s daughter Marie so they can grab a share of the girl’s fortune. Among these suitors is Sir Felix Carbury, a shiftless, worthless fellow who cares for nothing so much as gambling and drinking at his club, and Lord Nidderdale, an amiable young man without a deep thought in his head, but who has the title that Melmotte craves.

Other characters flit in and out of the scenes as well, including Paul Montague, a business associate of Melmotte’s who finds himself seemingly inextricably entangled with an American widow named Mrs. Hurtle; Roger Carbury, Sir Felix’s older cousin, who is deeply in love with Felix’s sister Henrietta (though she prefers Montague); and Mrs. Carbury, Felix and Henrietta’s mother, whose love for Felix and acceptance of whatever he does leads the family to the brink of ruin.

The novel shows how these lives intersect, and how the characters’ fates are largely determined by their own greed and moral shortcomings.

Liked

  • The characters were extremely well-developed, and were interesting enough that I cared about them almost right from the beginning. I can’t imagine reading a novel of this length with boring characters, so this was a critical point.
  • Almost all of the subplots were as intriguing as the main plot. I truly enjoyed reading about Paul Montague and Mrs. Hurtle, as well as Felix and the two women he took up with. I think it’s a rare occurrence in books for all of the plotlines to be on nearly equal footing in terms of generating and sustaining interest, so this was a major accomplishment.
  • The book is so well written that I hardly noticed the length at all once I was into it. Trollope’s pacing was superb, and there were very, very few boring spots along the way. I positively flew through this book in a matter of a week or so, which should give you an indication of how much I enjoyed it!

Disliked

  • I honestly can’t think of a single thing I disliked about this novel. If I had to choose something, however, I’d probably say that the Melmotte in Parliament stuff wasn’t all that necessary. Those scenes probably meant something satirical when Trollope published the novel, but the meaning was lost on me as a modern reader, so those were the slowest parts of the book in my opinion.

Rating
The Way We Live Now is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It’s wholly engrossing right from the start, features memorable characters, and flows extremely well. I give it 5 stars out of 5. Highly recommended!

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