Friday, October 15, 2010

A Room with a View Book Review

Sorry for the horrible quality
but my edition is from 1993
and this was the best I could
find without exerting myself.
E.M. Forster’s third novel, A Room with a View, is one of those books that have been on my to-read list for a while but I repeatedly forgot to actually acquire.  After I finally found it at a used bookstore a few months ago, it had to wait around for a while longer for me to finish rereading the Harry Potter series and a couple of books by Margaret Atwood.  After that wait, I was excited to return to Victorian England under the guidance of an author completely new to me for what the back of the book promised to be an interesting, thoughtful, intentional narrative.  After all that waiting and build-up, I’m sad to say that I was rather underwhelmed.

You know how in high school your English and creative writing teachers always said, “Show, don’t tell.  Show, don’t tell,” until it became a demented mantra that haunted you in your sleep and made you never want to write another word because what the hell does that even mean?  Forster could have done with a bit of that.  He seems to want to show how Lucy Honeychurch has more depth than most middle class society and that she feels and thinks more complexly than those around her.  He does this by having her say what she is supposed to say and then having the narrator go on long-winded accounts of what makes her so complex.  Rarely did I find anything complex in her actual character; rather, I had to trust that the narrator knew what he was talking about.  Isn’t this why we have free indirect discourse?!  He seemed to make some attempts at using free indirect discourse, but his usage was not nearly as polished or compelling as, say, Jane Austen’s.  Granted, she is the master whose writing is used to teach students what free indirect discourse is but still.  Forster often left me thinking, well, if you say so.

It also doesn’t help that almost none of the characters are likable and few are much more than caricatures (like Charlotte, the spinster martyr).  Even Lucy, though supposedly struggling for independence, mostly seems to just be a useless, occasionally rebellious little girl who generally does what is expected of her no matter how ridiculous.  That’s kind of the point, I guess, but her struggles are neither compelling nor believable.  The Emersons plant some ideas in her head, making her even more confused and prone to sudden fits of rebelliousness that she herself doesn’t understand.  The Emersons are probably the only interesting characters and also the ones who get the least amount of page-time.  Is this to show how Lucy’s “change” was really independent of them?  No, because they’re constantly on her mind (according to the narrator) and, as the forward-thinking Emersons eventually admit, no matter how independent they are women only ever act for a man.  Which Lucy then, to the disappointment of every female everywhere, proves.

Also, what’s all this garbage about musical people being more complex?  As any reader of Jane Austen knows, “playing” was an accomplishment expected of women in Victorian England, now matter how vain or silly or shallow they are.  Charles Bingley’s horrible sisters could play and they were no more complex or independent than a paper napkin – nay, a package of paper napkins.
EDIT: In thinking about this more, I realized that it's important that I point out that Pride and Prejudice and A Room with a View were separated by a century, during which many things inevitably changed.  Maybe musical ability wasn't so ubiquitous in Forster's time - I'm not sure, though the country life he describes really isn't so different from that of Austen, except maybe the fact that his female characters play tennis.  Either way, Lucy is always playing other people's music - not her own - which reinforces my point that her talent at the piano says nothing about the complexity of her being.  That a woman can tolerably play the music of men is not evidence of the depth of her own soul, nor evidence of the complexity and independence of women in general, a point which Forster sometimes seems to be making.

The book must have been compelling on some level, as I tore through it but I can’t tell exactly how it struck me.  Maybe it was just the simple prose that sped me through?  Maybe it was just that I couldn’t wait for Lucy to get on with it and finally marry George instead of lying to everybody, including herself?  Who knows.  Maybe I’ll give it a reread at some future date to try and understand it better.  Or maybe not.

There is apparently some appendix that’s only in some editions (not in mine) in which Forster discusses Lucy and George’s life together later on.  Isn’t that so annoying?  That’s like what J.K. Rowling did after finishing Harry Potter – “oh, and Dumbledore’s gay and Luna marries this guy and Harry’s head of this department and blah blah blah.”  If you’re going to do that, write another book.  It’s not true if you just blab on about it like that – it’s true when you make it true and until then you’re just irritating your readers.  Yes, there is truth in fiction.  And yes, I am still talking about A Room With a View.

I’d still like to read some of Forster’s other novels – namely, A Passage to India (partially because I love India and partially because I love abusing Brits for abusing India) and Howard’s End (Forster’s supposed masterpiece).

PS. Why can’t I always just sit down like this after finishing a book and write my review/thoughts?  I’ve been finished with the last two Harry Potters and The Year of the Flood for weeks now and still haven’t managed to convince myself to write about them, but I just finished A Room With a View last night and here I am, already posting about it.

PPS. How did I manage to mention Harry Potter three times throughout the course of this?  Make that four.

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