Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

May 26, 2009

oscar-and-lucinda Plot summary (with spoilers): The “Oscar” of the title is Oscar Hopkins, whom we meet as a young boy growing up in rural England. His father, Theophilus, belongs to a strict religious sect of brethren that don’t even believe in celebrating Christmas. Oscar’s mother died earlier, so it’s just the two of them. Theophilus loves the boy, but is not very good at demonstrating his feelings, so Oscar experiences a relatively lonely childhood.

Upon turning 15, Oscar decides to join the Church of England in direct opposition to Theophilus’ wishes. He starts living with the Strattons, who are neighbors, and then attends Cambridge. While there, Oscar develops a love of gambling, and routinely bets on horses in order to pay for living expenses. He has a system that he uses, which makes him more successful than not. Eventually, he decides to go to Australia, where he will be given a parish of his own.

The “Lucinda” of the title is Lucinda Leplastrier, a young, orphaned Australian heiress who has poured most of her inheritance into a Sydney glass factory. She doesn’t know much about business when she begins, so she enlists the help of Reverend Dennis Hasset. Lucinda ends up spending so much time with Reverend Hasset that people start speculating about what improprieties may be going on behind closed doors, and Lucinda herself starts to wonder if she loves Hasset. But Hasset never presses the matter. At this time, Lucinda also develops a taste for cards, and can’t resist any kind of gambling she comes across.

Oscar and Lucinda meet on a ship going from England to Australia, and though they don’t interact much at that time, the journey does pave the way for a future relationship. Specifically, Lucinda ends up taking Oscar in as a lodger after his Bishop kicks him out of the parish upon discovering his gambling habit. Oscar was basically homeless and as ragged as a beggar, so Lucinda felt she had no choice. Again, the impropriety of the arrangement set tongues wagging, though behind closed doors nothing was really happening.

Gradually, Oscar and Lucinda do indeed start falling in love with each other. But Oscar thinks Lucinda is still in love with Hasset, while Lucinda thinks Oscar is uninterested because he never broaches the subject. They finally bet each other that Oscar can’t transport a pre-fabricated glass church overland to a distant village and have it set up by Palm Sunday. He thinks if he can do this, he’ll be able to win her over. She offers up her entire inheritance if he can. The outcome of the bet was actually surprising and caught me off guard.

Liked:

  • I enjoyed the gambling angle quite a bit. I don’t think there are enough main characters in literature who love gambling, so this was kind of cool to see. I like gambling myself, so I could understand where Oscar and Lucinda were coming from most of the time.
  • The final bet about the glass church was interesting. I’m not sure why they thought they could safely transport glass, though, nor did I get why the church had to be built before they even made it to the site. That’s how it broke, right?

Disiked:

  • I didn’t understand why Oscar slept with Miriam immediately upon arrival at Bellingen. First of all, I thought he was in love with Lucinda, so why would he give in to this woman so easily? Especially since he had won his bet and had a chance to impress Lucinda. Second, wasn’t he absolutely nasty from his journey? Peter Carey made a point of saying that Oscar refused to bathe in front of the other men and that he stank, plus he had some kind of bowel condition that would make him a good case study for anyone writing Colonix program reviews. Why would Miriam want to set herself on Oscar in that condition? Sorry, but this made no sense to me.
  • I thought it was pretty crappy that Oscar died in the church as it was still sitting on the barges. So one of the boats sank, causing the church to fill up with water, which led to Oscar’s drowning? That seemed like such a totally random event… and highly unlikely to boot.
  • This novel had one of the slowest beginnings ever! The stuff about Oscar’s childhood was soooo boring that it took me a couple of weeks to get through — even though the chapters are so damn short! You know how conventional wisdom for publishing anything these days is to grab the reader’s attention right from the start and never let go? Well, obviously Peter Carey doesn’t believe in that axiom, and neither does his publisher. Yikes.

Rating:

I read Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey because it’s on the Observer’s list of the Top 100 Novels ever written. However, I didn’t like it very much at all, and certainly wouldn’t include it in my own personal top 100. I’m sure others love the book and are wondering how I can be so dense as to not see its greatness, but man, it just wasn’t for me. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

One Response to “Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey”

  1. I agree with all three of your dislikes and had the same thoughts myself. Although, I actually ended up thinking the the first part was more interesting, but maybe only because I disliked the ending so much.

    I would add one more dislike: What happened to Lucinda? Other than that she lost all her money in the bet with Oscar and she didn’t get Oscar because he drowned, what actually happened to her? It either wasn’t in there or I missed it in the 700 pages of dense text.

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