The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

May 12, 2010

magnificent ambersons Plot summary (with spoilers): The Ambersons are a family of immense wealth. They own a lot of property in the business district of the unnamed Midwestern town where the action takes place, and they have magnificent residential estates in all the best locations. Like many wealthy families, however, their position is a precarious one in the early part of the 20th century.

The story follows the life of George Amberson Minafer, the only grandson of the patriarch of the Amberson clan. As a little boy, Georgie was as spoiled as you might expect. He always got his way, received ponies and other gifts that ordinary children could never get their hands on, and mouthed off to anyone — adult or child — who dared to stand up to him. Moreover, Georgie was aware from a very early age that his family was “different” and that everyone else was somehow below him. Thus, he loved to dismiss commoners as “riffraff” if they didn’t live up to his standards.

George’s life is mostly carefree, until he meets Lucy Morgan, the beautiful young daughter of his mother Isabel’s old friend Eugene Morgan. George instantly falls in love with Lucy, but is surprised, angered, and hurt when she doesn’t reciprocate with the same level of passion. Maybe her lack of feeling has something to do with the way George treats her father. Eugene, whom many view as an eccentric, is trying to develop a “horseless carriage” (aka the automobile). But George looks upon him only with disdain, thinking that Eugene is off his rocker. Moreover, George does not like how much time Eugene spends with his mother.

Given this setup, the rest of the novel traces a few different storylines to their respective conclusions. First is the story of George and Lucy, which doesn’t end “happily ever after”. Next is the development of the automobile, which brings about great changes around the country. And finally, Tarkington deals with the decline of both the Amberson family in general and George in particular, as the young man eventually gets the comeuppance that everyone longed for ever since he was a little spoiled brat.

Liked:

  • This was the first Booth Tarkington novel I ever read, but it won’t be the last. I actually read it last November, and simply forgot about posting the review until today when I found it while cleaning up the files on my external hard drive. At any rate, I really enjoyed Tarkington’s storytelling style, which unfolded at a good pace and included lots of character development.
  • Speaking of the characters, they were terrific. All of them were well-defined, even the minor characters like Aunt Fanny. They all had distinct personalities, traits, and motivations. That kind of development is simply not seen very often in today’s novels, so it was nice to read something like this for a change.
  • George Amberson Minafer was a wonderful protagonist. He wasn’t particularly likable through much of the story, as readers could see just how selfish and condescending he was. But he went through a definite arc, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, even as he witnessed his family’s decline, saw the family fortune disappear, and went to work handling nitroglycerin just to earn enough money so he and Fanny could live at a boarding house. Wow.
  • I liked that the love story between George and Lucy didn’t work out perfectly. This was not common at the time Tarkington was writing, right? Most people expected the typical happy ending, didn’t they? At any rate, I thought it was realistic the way Lucy turned George down, and I liked that he was too proud to go back to her after the Amberson fall. That was completely in character. At least Lucy visited George in the hospital after his car accident. That boded well for their future.

Disliked:

  • There were a few slow spots along the way, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

Rating

I thought The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington was an excellent book. It provides a terrific look at a wealthy family during a time of great change in America, and shows how different aspects of this changing society converged to precipitate the Ambersons’ downfall. I give the book 4 stars out of 5.

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