The Short Version: The story of Esther Summerson, a young orphan girl who grows up by a stroke of fortune into the titular house – a house beset by an epic law case, Jarndyce & Jarndyce. Her benefactor, the young wards of the case, and several figures of London life (ranging from the highest-born to the dregs of the slums) play a part in the story of this case and of the impact it would have on both house and girl.
The Review: Oh, Charles… I thought, for a time while reading this book, that we were going to have a problem. That it was Our Mutual Friend all over again and that all of our good work together over the last year would go by the wayside. I tell you, dear reader, that I was in fear of not finishing this book. Not through any fault of Mr. Dickens’ per se – I could easily have blamed it on the fact that it has been a rather tumultuous past few weeks in my world and I had not the time nor the willpower to crack on with an overpoweringly massive tome. And yet just when all hope seemed lost and I was prepared to admit some sort of grudging defeat in my quest to better myself literarily by attacking one author in particular a year (and it would’ve been a failure to not even complete my first year, let alone one of the most important authors in history)… A GUY SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTS.
That’s a bit of a spoiler, although I won’t apologize (I just simply won’t go any further into divulging who). I cannot tell you how incredible this was to me. I would like to reiterate, in all caps for emphasis: A MAN SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTS IN THIS NOVEL. BURSTS INTO FLAME AND IS REDUCED TO ASHES. SPONTANEOUSLY.
Reader, if you cannot appreciate my surprise and unmasked enjoyment of the fact that Charles Dickens wrote a novel where a man spontaneously combusts, then I do believe we may need to go our separate ways. CHARLES DICKENS. Wrote this. Amazing! And so, just like that, I found myself intrigued again. It was certainly a strange moment (and one, I admit, that doesn’t have too much impact, retrospectively) and it immediately pulled me back into the book. Oh, there were some trying moments yet to come… but I found that the plot picked up and things seemed to be racing towards perhaps not a conclusion but at least something vaguely resembling the moments before a conclusion. I was, as they say, so on board. Then there’s a terrible illness and a detective and a good soul lost to the evil forces of the law and True Love and all that good stuff one expects from this kind of novel. I read the last 250 pages in one go between 7:15am and 9:30am after finding myself wide awake this weekend. And it was a snap, a breeze – I might go so far as to say a ‘delight’. I had been told that it was a book that would, at some point, hook me and pull me quickly and inexorably towards the end. I just didn’t believe it (sorry, MB. I’ll never doubt you again.) and was happily proved wrong.
This is not to say that this is a perfect book. Dear God, is it long – unnecessarily so, I’d say. It is the very definition of sprawling, with a nearly-impossible-to-keep-track-of dramatis personae and a plot that appears labyrinthine to the point of impenetrability. The secret, I discovered, is that 1) you don’t really need to recall the specifics of all of the tertiary characters, just who they are related to at the secondary character level and 2) the plot is really far less labyrinthine than I thought. It just seems that way because it is dragged out over nearly 1000 pages. Between the lawsuit and the “who’s her mum?” question (both of which had a resolution that I pegged within maybe the first fifty pages, although to be fair the latter question is never really much of a secret), the whole thing goes along relatively straightforwardly. Dickens just also enjoys airing out these characters and letting them live their lives. He’s not afraid of taking a chapter-long digression to see what Mr. Guppy and his weird friend are doing – a subject which, if I’m being generous, barely has any impact on the “story” at large. But it all depends, then, on how you feel about Dickens’ writing and that luxurious way of telling a story. Had I been in a less tumultuous period of the year, perhaps I would’ve allowed myself to luxuriate more. But this is not a book meant for reading a snippet here and there on one’s commute to/from work.
Actually, if I had to say anything about this book, I’d say that it is meant to be read in installments. Dickens published it over nearly two years and I’d be fascinated to’ve experienced that sort of serialized storytelling. I’d be fascinated by it anyway (also why I’m super excited for Mark Z. Danielewski’s experiment with serialized publishing… although I also wish someone a little more traditional was doing it, like when Stephen King did The Green Mile) but this novel – and, I’d say, most of Dickens’ larger novels – are better served in the form they were originally published in. This novel takes place over something like 20 years and to’ve read it over the course of two would’ve been (I think) incredibly rewarding in a way. It also would’ve allowed for things to come in between… and while I admit to’ve taken a day-long pause twice to read two books that came my way for review, I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt the flow of the actual physical novel. Because I have that particular compulsive vice. I also worried that if I put it down, I’d never come back to it.
Anyway, I’ve not talked much about the characters and writing and what-not… I guess that’s because once you’ve read a few Dickens, you’ve sort of read them all (in terms of the writing and the unique characters). Sure, these characters are all interesting and unique in their own ways as opposed to those of any other Dickens novel… but they’re all similarly unique and interesting in the sense that all of the characters in Dickens are unique and interesting. It’s really a staggering accomplishment, when you think about it in that scope. And the writing is as witty and sharp as ever. I’m still consistently surprised at how laugh-out-loud funny Dickens can be. He’s also got a sharp edge to his writing, here taking on the law system and the government in general in addition to his usual targets of the class system and the welfare of the poor. The best part is that you can read this (or any of his novels, really) and just see them as great paintings of what it was like to live in England in the 1800s – and still find them fascinating on that surface level. But for those who’ve studied English history at all or who’ve ever given though to the socio-econo-political struggles facing society today (etc etc), there’s a lot happening here. There is a reason Charles Dickens is considered maybe the greatest novelist of all time and it isn’t just because he was funny and wrote these massively terrific stories – it’s because his mind, like William Shakespeare’s, was engaged on so many levels that most mortals can barely attempt to keep up.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Look, I’ll be honest: the length did me in a little. I’m all for a 1000+ page book – we all love our epics now and again – but I’m coming to realize that it wasn’t just youthful ‘tude and that I actually prefer my 1000+ page books to be written a little more modernly. Sorry, Charlie. But, having said that, this is a terrific novel. Full of so much that you could probably find new things on several re-readings, it’s the kind of novel that you feel accomplished at having read and finished – and one that will truly cement whether you like Dickens or just like the stories that’ve become engrained in our culture. I’m happy to say that I can without hesitation tell you: I like Dickens.