Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Jane Austen on steroids

Book: Vanity Fair
Author: William Makepeace Thackray
Published: 1848 (original; 2004 Penguin this edition)
Pages: 809

Let me preface this review with something you should keep in mind throughout, because I’m going to sound like I’m contradicting this a couple times: I liked this book.

So let’s tear it apart! Well, that might be difficult given the softback-brick size – I bet you could use this edition to test the same sort of strength ripping a phone book in half requires. But I did digest this in chunks with several other books (in other reviews I post with this one) between the adventures of 19th-century people who like wealth too much to actually keep any of it and pure-hearted soles who by the tragicomic turnings of fate find themselves falling into the same poverty state as the people who got there dishonestly.

It’s basically three or four Jane Austen books together about the same two families. It covers roughly the same-ish time period, same sort of society manners, same sort of inheritance and scandal drama, same sort of scheming and emphasis on society and how that, more than private decisions, determines how a life will play out.

It’s also got the time’s same decorative, winking prose, although Thackeray is more ironic and pointed and fourth-wall-crashing when revealing hypocrisies that are widely known and still taken as givens in society circles. He also brings in more peripheral details that can be wickedly hilarious but don’t have bearings on anything except the general atmosphere. These all make you laugh and gain insight at unexpected points and understand even the characters he writes as completely unrepentant.

But it was a terrible lunchtime read, because it takes like twenty minutes to get back into (especially if you’ve been dealing with other readings that are modern and just as difficult, like legal decisions or software manuals) and then a few pages after I got going at a good clip I had to stop. And then pick it back up after work when I had to remind myself where I was again. 

Plus everyone’s referred to by like three different names, like their Christian name (okay – none of those repeat), their last name (oh…kay, we’ve got like three generation of men in the same family so…is she flirting with the dad or the—oh right, the son!), or their married name (is that a Mrs.? That’s a Mrs. Okay. This is the wifey. Gotcha). Stylistically, it’s not the easiest thing to keep straight.

Jane Austen anti-fans and people who don’t like society-driven plots in general probably won’t enjoy this, but please do believe me when I say I had a good time getting through it, especially since I didn’t pressure myself to push through the difficult bits. Sometimes absence really does make the reader grow fonder. Bookshelf.  

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