Thursday, September 25, 2008

Good but not Great Novel

The Old Wives' Tale
“The manner of his life was of no importance. What affected her was that he had once been young. That he had grown old, and was now dead. That was all. Youth and vigour had come to that. Youth and vigour always came to that. Everything came to that.”  ― Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives' Tale

Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale is a good, but not great, novel about the lives led by two women from a small town in England. While he writes with both a high degree of realism and historical accuracy there are moments, especially in the opening chapters, that test the reader's patience. His devotion to the quotidian details of everyday life does not always rise to the level of interest, even when presented well by a master prose stylist. Our Lincoln Park Book Group discussed this novel this evening and concluded that Bennett succeeded in his attempt at realism and that the characters, particularly the two sisters, Sophia and Constance, had depth and believability.

Bennett's ability to successfully develop believable female characters with the protagonists is one of the best aspects of this novel. His realistic style compares favorably with William Dean Howells whose novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, also demonstrates a sensitive portrayal of women. I found that the novel became more interesting as each of the four sections unfolded, ultimately becoming a satisfying portrayal of small town life during the end of the Victorian era.

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett. Penguin Books, New York 1983 (1908).

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