Thursday, June 11, 2015

Middlemarch, George Eliot


George Eliot

Category: classic fiction
Synopsis: Observations on the interwoven lives of the residents of the fictitious English town of Middlemarch.
Pages: audio CD
Date finished: 14 April 2015

Rating: *****

If you ask me today what my top three favorite novels are, I’d say “Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, and…Middlemarch.” Seldom does a book stop me absolutely dead in my tracks, but this one did. This is a long book, one that I’d heard mentioned over the years, but I had no idea what it was about. Being so long (my Penguin clothcovered edition is 900 pages), I knew I wouldn’t get to it any time soon unless I “read” it on audio. (More on that experience in a minute…)

I find writing reviews of books I love a nearly impossible task. I’ve put off writing this review for weeks, at first because I was still processing, then because I was still savoring, and finally, out of fear for finding the correct words. But it’s time to get my thoughts on paper (screen?) before I lose them.

I’ll start by saying that nothing particularly spectacular happens in this novel. I have a high tolerance for that in novels—in fact, they’re my favorite kind. I’m much more interested in characters than plot, and I appreciate authors who put their energies into presenting a fully-fleshed human character (likable or not) rather than into fantastical plots. I don’t like to “escape” into fiction; I like my fiction to imitate real life. The characters in Middlemarch aren’t excruciatingly complex, but they are three-dimensional. Each has good qualities and foibles. Each has setbacks in the course of the novel, and each either shows real human growth because of how they deal with them or takes their unlearned lessons to their grave.

This book was originally published serially in eight parts, and at the time no one knew how Eliot would end it. I find that naively unbelievable. I’ve got to tell you, I knew how it would end, but there were dozens of plot twists along the way that made me giddy with “I didn’t think of that!” This serial nature explains, too, why Eliot was still introducing characters almost halfway through the book, and why plots were thickening right up until the end. While I never really doubted how the book would end, I did wonder often how the “how” would happen.

But what I loved about this book is how astute George Eliot is in diagraming human nature and calling out her characters’ assets and arrogances. She’s absolutely dead on with her wry descriptions of people and situations. She makes her characters realize things that subsequently change them. And, alternately, she keeps some of them in the dark as to their own motives. This is a big book with dozens of characters and it covers the range of human emotions, experiences, and relationships. We see pride, humility, manipulation, piousness, sincerity, morality, earnestness, envy, futility, callousness, cruelty, self-importance, selfishness, pettiness, tenderness, and jealousy. We see how wealth corrupts, how irresponsibility sets off a chain of events that touch on more lives than the selfish source of it. We see secrets uncovered, passions revealed, devotion as both a safety and an albatross, as one’s reinforcing and also one’s undoing. We examine interpersonal relationships in families and in civic contexts. We see the depths of marriage exposed; Eliot does not shy away from plumbing the hard truths of marital intimacy. Faith and religion is examined, politics and art are examined, the esoteric worthlessness of some (most?) education and self-study is examined. Timeless topics such as social class, medical progress, finding ones true vocation, female beauty, debt, and vice are all stripped bare and presented. In short, we see a microcosm of the human experience in one small English community. And one book holds it all. Eliot’s emotional intelligence is brilliant. Her writing is stunning. And her interweaving of characters and plots and destinies is flawless. This is a book that you don’t stop reading once you’re done reading, because it continues on into your life.

As I said, I listened to the audio. There were times I wished I was reading the book, though. I would have enjoyed savoring certain passages and giving others more time. Should I revisit the book—and I know I will someday—I think I’ll read it rather than listen to it.

That said, the audio I bought is superb. It’s narrated by Nadia May, who I guess is a big deal in the audio narration world (who knew there were awards for such a thing?). She’s British, so you can know that proper names are correctly pronounced (Casaubon = Casorbon; Caleb = Callub) and she reads with an understanding of the text but not too much interpretation of it so as to color yours. She excels in giving each character (and there are many) his or her own voice, so you can know who’s speaking before the dialogue clues you in. It really made the book come to life.

Now, the audio collection I bought contains 25 CDs of about 75 minutes each. I’d say it wasn’t until about disc 10 that I was able to give into the book’s pace and really settle in. So, keep that in mind if you’re listening (or reading) this one.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Oh yes. To everyone I meet from here on out.



  1. OK--I think you hooked me! I'm also a big fan of books where "nothing really happens"--because, face it--in reality, isn't that what most people's lives are like? And I do love peeking into other people's lives! 900 pages . . . I'm not afraid of long books but I think this would be a record for me.

    1. Oh I'm so happy--I've converted my first Middlemarch-er! If you tackle it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I think reading it would be an entirely different experience from listening. Although I really enjoyed listening to it. It made my dark, early mornings more bearable. Perhaps an odd choice for a first audiobook, though!

    2. Found a kindle version for .99--quite the bargain! :-)

  2. I loved finally getting to read your thoughts on this book! You expressed many of my same feelings about it (although, as you know, the length was a hard sell for me). So glad to have listened to it at the same time as you!

    1. Sorry it took me SO long to post that. I kept going back and forth on if I should write about the plot or not. I finally decided I couldn't do it w/o giving too much away. I'm not good at plot synopses! You do such a good job of that.