This seems to be the year of really long books for me. First Anna Karenina, then The Cider House Rules, and now Middlemarch. Technically, Middlemarch doesn't really get to be on the list, though, as I'm only halfway through. And to be honest, I could use a break.
Like Anna Karenina, George Eliot's masterpiece Middlmarch is a sweeping narrative, covering the personal, the political, the economic, and some other stuff too. Also like Anna Karenina, it spends a lot of time talking about poor laborers, yet those are the only characters who we don't get any real insight into, other than in observations of those with money (or, at the very least, status). As for the characters that we are exposed to... I'd have to say that I don't love them. Take Mr. Brooke, for example, who is silly, repetitive, and impulsive. Or his niece Dorothea, who is pretty, zealous, and idealistic. Or Fred Vincy, who is loosely collected to these people, and is lazy, irritating, and takes advantage of people (though he does feel guilty afterwards). So many of the characters (and there are a lot of them) seem like little more than caricatures - easily identifiable as having certain traits and never doing anything to surprise their friends or the reader. They are generally dull, or so flawed that it's impossible to identify with them in any way. The one exception to this would probably be the Garth family, who have enough troubles and admirable flaws to make me interested in them, though they rarely grace the pages.
The biggest problem for me is probably the sheer number of characters and the way they are described. There are some characters who only appear for a page or so and who we hear so little about that by the next chapter, their last echos have faded away. The characters who appear repeatedly, on the other hand, we tend to hear described, in the same ways, over and over. Unlike, say, Jane Austen, Eliot trusts nothing to her readers. Four hundred pages in, we hear, again, about Dorothea's "characteristic directness," her "clear and unhesitating" voice, and then, as the scene dictates, of her "melancholy meditation" (410-411). However, on the following page, Eliot still feels the need to tell us that when Dorothea says, "I am very, very sorry," the words are spoken, "mournfully." Well, of course they are! We already have known, from page one, that Dorothea is unfailingly forthright, and from this scene that she is sad - how else could she have spoken those words?
Sometimes, Eliot's words feel wasted, a sensation I did not get from The Mill on the Floss or Silas Marner, both of which I loved. At this point, Middlemarch is disappointing my expectations, although it still has the occasional ability to draw me in (though I can't help but wish there was less to be drawn in to). I've already taken a brief break from the book to read Vaclav & Lena, and I'm about to take another to finally read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I will definitely finish Middlemarch, but I just don't think I can do it all at once.