Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

If you read a description of The Magnificent Ambersons, it will say it's the story of three generations of the wealthy Amberson family but this isn't quite true.  It's really the story of George Amberson Minafer.  George is the only grandson of the fabulously rich scion of the Amberson family.  A family so well off that they own multiple blocks of their bustling mid-western town.  As the only grandchild of a very wealthy family, you can probably guess how spoiled George is in his youth.  He is doted on to a fault by his loving mother and wants for no material possession.  And he acts like it.  Everyone in the town waits patiently for the day when young George will "get his comeuppance."  Young George is about as unlikable as a character can be, even after he meets a smart, independent young woman at a ball at his grandfather's home.  Even love at first sight can't rein in his more obnoxious tendencies.  After a few chapters, you begin hoping with the townsfolk that the comeuppance will come soon.  But the book is about more than just George.

The Magnificent Ambersons begins not with the main characters or any of the plot but with a chapter establishing the setting.  Booth Tarkington puts you in the time and place.  He details what hats had fallen out of style and what had replaced them.  He describes what people in the mid-western town do in their leisure time.  Tarkington goes out of his way to tell the reader about the world his characters inhabit.  It isn't just world-building though, the book is about what happens to people as times change.  Any story about a rich family normally includes their fall from grace but this story details how the rapid changes from the industrial revolution onward swallowed up the old ways.  It shows in one family, and really one character, how a town can outgrow its benefactors and leave them broken and forgotten.  Tarkington does this with deft characterizations and sly humor so it isn't really as bleak as all that but the weight of this story matched with its lightness is probably what lead to it receiving the Pulitzer Prize.

As a note, since this book was published 100 years ago, there are sections with "hysterical women" and characters that are casually racist.

If you like this book, you might enjoy the film version directed by Orson Welles.

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