The Magnificent Ambersons
, Booth Tarkington
Modern Library Best 100 Novels of the 20th Century - Book # 100
4 stars (out of 5)
The Magnificent Ambersons
is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a bygone age; a time when there were only two social classes, "gentlemen" and "riffraff," where ascots were worn to dinner and the horseless carriage was considered a passing fad. Set in a growing Midwestern town at the end of the nineteenth century, Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer winner (one of two, in fact) is the story of George Amberson Minafer, the spoiled and arrogant heir to the family 'magnificence'. Once the most important family in the rapidly growing town, the Ambersons are oblivious to their increasing irrelevance, and as industrialization and democratization take hold, little Georgie finds himself stubbornly maintaining his self-importance in the face of a changing era.
In spite of George's utter nastiness at times, Tarkington has somehow managed to portray him as a sympathetic character. As he bull-headedly marches through life defending the family name and honor, one cannot help but feel sorry for this anachronistic gentleman who believes that "being things is rather better than doing things." The disintegration of the Amberson way of life is inevitable but drawn out, and hot-headed young George manages to completely miss the foreshadowing that Tarkington skillfully employs.
The author creates conflict not only between George and the unworthy (just about everyone else), but also in the various subplots; George's tempestuous romance with the daughter of a local Henry Ford-like automobile engineer, his antagonistic relationship with his spinster Aunt Fanny, and his relationship to his doting, child-like mother. This secondary cast of characters is richly evoked, and their interactions are often heartbreaking. One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Magnificent Ambersons
is Tarkington's clever dialogue, and his acerbic wit is amply sprinkled throughout the characters' various interactions. At times, the humor is laugh-out-loud funny, and will appeal most to readers who love the subtle cuts and parries of Gilded Age conversation.
I would likely never have picked up The Magnificent Ambersons
had it not been included in the Modern Library's Top 100, and in fact was slightly surprised upon finishing the novel that it made the final cut (albeit barely, sliding in at number 100). While I found the book to be well-written, entertaining and evocative, I felt it lacked a more long-term resonance. While I thoroghly enjoyed it, I didn't find myself gripped by the book's ideas long afterwards. My only complaint was that the ending felt a bit abrupt. Regardless, Tarkington's ability to offer a subtle commentary on a vanishing era is likely part of the reason for his sustained relevance, and his influence on American Realist authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald is obvious throughout the novel. I will most certainly be investigating more of Tarkington's work, and highly recommend that readers discover for themselves whether Georgie gets his "comeuppance."
x-posted to hipsterbookclub