Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What I Read: The French Lieutenant's Woman

Once upon a time this blog was about my STEM-themed jewelry. I need to pick up some supplies and just get back in the habit, but until then, y'all get to hear about my books. This week I finally (!!) finished The French Lieutenant's Woman, a selection from the TIME Top 100 Novels list. Reading all of them has been a goal I set for myself way back in 2009 as part of my first 101 in 1001 project; I started at something like 25 and am in the home stretch with 91. My list differs from the actual list, for reasons I've explained elsewhere, but it's more or less the same. This is my Classics Club list. I'm not sure what I'll replace it with: Modern Library's top novels? Queer lit? Feminist lit? POC authors? Science fiction? The entire oeuvre of Agatha Christie? The sky's the limit!

I knew nothing about The French Lieutenant's Woman going into it. Considering that John Fowles is listed among Great Britain's top 50 writers that makes me maybe one of the worst English majors ever, but so it is. I'd never heard of Fowles, or The French Lieutenant's Woman, or any of his other books prior to my TIME 101 mission. It worked out because I was still really grumpy after Fangirl and I wanted to come at a book with zero expectations or hype. That said, I don't think a book published in 1969 is going to have much hype in the year of our Lord 2016...

Image courtesy Jonathan Cape/Random House

Basically I went from ultradense postmodern historical fiction to twee YA escapism back to ultradense postmodern historical fiction. It's been a bit disorienting, I guess, and I very much want the next book I read to be both easy and good. As it stands, The French Lieutenant's Woman made me want to throw the book across the room. (The only reason I didn't was that my copy was a very nice 1971 hardback library copy.)

Where to start with this book? Well, the writing is complex and dense. This is not a complaint; it's good to stretch the little gray cells once in a while, and once you accustom yourself to the faux-Victorian style of the novel things continue at a relatively snappy pace. But it's still work, and for so much work one expects some kind of reward. Possession (a novel inspired by The French Lieutenant's Woman) has a reward; Under the Volcano has a reward. The French Lieutenant's Woman has...nothing.

By "reward" I don't mean a good or at least satisfying ending; I mean the entire reading experience. Byatt wrote an astounding amount of Victorian-style poetry and built entire lives for two fictionalized poets and, to a slightly lesser extent, their spouses—that's four people, if you're counting. The story of Possession is engaging enough but the real reward (for me) is in standing back and appreciating Byatt's thorough commitment to the structure. Lowry brings to life the despair of alcoholism and imperialism, which is far more engrossing than the mere plot of the book. If dense writing lends itself to an astounding technical feat or a sublime truth about human experience, it's worth the work.

The French Lieutenant's does neither. There is no great, interesting accomplishment in structure or format; there is no divine, haunting truth. It's just, as the top-rated 1-star review glibly puts it, "heterosexual nonsense."

The essential problem of the book is that we spend exactly zero time with the titular character. You know how Cleopatra, with gorgeous Liz Taylor being all scheme-y and sultry, is really more about "the men who loved Cleopatra" than Cleopatra herself? It's the same here. We spend most of the time with Charles, a young man who is obsessed with "the French lieutenant's woman" (Sarah), and not...Sarah. Because of this, everything else falls apart.

Here is the story, such as it is: Charles is engaged to Ernestina. They are spending their pre-nuptial time in a small village more familiar to Ernestina than to Charles, and one day on a walk they see Sarah. (Insert melodramatic thunderclaps here.) Charles wonders who she is and Ernestina begrudgingly explains. Charles continues to encounter Sarah by chance, learning her story (fell in love with a French lieutenant who was wrecked along the British coast; was ultimately jilted by him) and ultimately falling in love with her. He ends up breaking off his engagement with Ernestina to be with Sarah, despite it not being respectable, but Sarah never gets his proposal. Charles, heartbroken and mortally embarrassed, spends some time abroad and finds Sarah a year-ish later. They either maybe reunite or never reunite (Fowles presents two endings and very strongly implies that either are equally possible.)

If Fowles' intention was to bring to light Victorian hypocrisy and how destructive it was, he limited himself hugely by taking such a narrow perspective. Likewise if his goal was to plum the depths of the human heart and how we always seem to need to rebel against convention. Charles is dull as dishwater, and without the benefit of close narration, Sarah comes off as all the worst stereotypes about "hysterical attention whores." I would say that most of the women come across poorly but really most of the characters come across poorly. But since we spend the most time with men (primarily Charles; to an extent his manservant, Sam), the equal-opportunity-awful still reads as crusty patriarchy.

Because I don't even know if we're supposed to like Sarah! Is she a progressive and Independent Woman (TM) who is out of her time? Is she childish and hysterical? It's impossible to know because we never get to hear her thoughts; only what she deigns to share in dialogue. Granted, her life circumstances when we meet her are awful (being the employ of a tyrannical widow), but much of her story suggests that she went out of her way to make herself an unemployable charity case and pariah.

Could this be some kind of metanarrative commentary on how women's voices are marginalized? Maybe, like, a 1% chance. But probably not.

The bell cannot be unrung; the book cannot be unread. The Magus sounds like it might be more my cup of tea, but other than that I won't be coming back to Fowles anytime soon. Not even Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons can save this one for me.

Heterosexual nonsense.

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