Saturday, September 7, 2013

#67 - "The French Lieutenant's Woman" by John Fowles

Flowery Gibberish or
Literary Brilliance?

Where to begin? As I've said before, I was really surprised at how this novel turned out. My prejudices going in told me this would be a completely different type of book, and one that I wouldn't overly enjoy. Instead, I received the opposite; a well written and thoroughly entertaining, and interesting, read.

The French Lieutenant's Woman is the story of Charles, an aristocratic young man living in South Western England, who is engaged to Ernestina, his rather dull fiancee. One day, Charles and Ernestina, while out for a stroll, spot Sarah Woodruff, a local governess with a tragic and shameful past (it seems at one point she had been 'involved' with a ship-wrecked Lieutenant in the French navy). Of course word got around that she might have slept with said Lieutenant, which led to instant ostracization by the uptight Victorians of the time.

When Charles first comes across this social pariah, he is intrigued by her story (which he learns only through hearsay), but knows that the Victorian rules of the day dictate he will never get to know here; for he is a gentleman, and she a simple maid. Through a series of fortunate events however, he meets the woman and soon becomes quite preoccupied with her life.

The plot is interesting, without a doubt, and had me very intrigued as to whether or not things would work out for our hero, Charles. Trying to take an interest in a simple, troubled woman, while at the same time maintaining English gentleman status and continuing to woo a fiancee, is no easy task. But the real enjoyment of the book for me, was from the writing and a couple of the unique techniques John Fowles used.

First is the narrator telling the story, and freely mentioning that he is in the late 1960's, while the story takes place in 1867. The narrator often uses 'present day' examples and comparisons to explain the actions of this characters or quirks in Victorian culture. When this technique was first used, I feared it would make the story hokey, and it would date the novel. It did neither.

As I mentioned last week, Fowles also made the interesting choice of breaking the fourth wall, which is always a risky move. Not only does the narrator comment on his writing styles and techniques, but also explains how he had lost control of his characters, who were now doing as they pleased, instead of listening to his commands. Again, this worked, and combined with the comparisons to the 1960's made it feel as if the narrator wasn't merely the writer, but also one of the characters. In a way, it made me think of Peter Faulk's role in The Princess Bride; he's a character but he's also telling the story.

Fowles then takes that idea a step further, and inserts himself as an actual character in the book, who shares a train car with Charles. This isn't the first time I've seen this on the list, Martin Amis did the same thing in Money. However, Amis in that book was not the narrator, nor was he the author of the book.

The other unusual thing Fowles did, was to offer the reader two, possibly three endings to the story. I suppose this is only possible when the author is having a conversation with the reader, which allows him to explain his actions. I found it to be quite an interesting move, as the two endings were basically polar opposites of each other, one happy and one sad, and sort of answered the 'what if the hero had done this instead' thought that so often passes through my head (Scarlett!).

The bad part is it leaves me wondering which ending is the 'real' one. Typically, I would think the happy ending is more desirable, but the sad ending is more plausible. Fowles, in the book, points out that it is natural to assume the second ending is the actual one, sort of like how the movie Clue ended. To avoid this problem, Fowles flips a coin to decide which ending he writes first, leaving us to continue pondering how the story really did end.

Without a doubt one of the more unique books from the list so far, and also one of the most enjoyable. A real gem, and one that falls under the category of "Book I'd never have read if it wasn't for this list project."

Next up, as mentioned, is Pale Fire. I've started it, but that's about it. I had a non-fiction book due back at the library yesterday, so I spent the week reading it.

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