Relevant Fiction Reviews: Classics I

Relevant Fiction Reviews

I enjoy reading books by contemporary authors, but now and then I like to pick up a classic. There are so, so many I haven’t read. These are three I had been meaning to read for a while. Interestingly, at the crux of each of these vastly different novels is the sin of adultery. And in each case, its ramifications are played out.

O Pioneers! (Great Plains Trilogy, #1)O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The depth and grandeur of O Pioneers! didn’t catch up with me until the end. I’d read My Antonia in college and Death Comes for the Archbishop a decade ago, and loved both. O Pioneers! only confirmed my appreciation for Cather’s writing.

I was struck again by the beauty of her prose and imagery.

“There was about Alexandra something of the impervious calm of the fatalist, always disconcerting to very young people, who cannot feel that the heart lives at all unless it is still at the mercy of storms; unless its strings can scream to the touch of pain.”

“He felt as if a clear light broke upon his mind, and with it a conviction that good was, after all, stronger than evil, and that good was possible to men. He seemed to discover that there was a kind of rapture in which he could love forever without faltering and without sin.”

And possibly favorite last line ever:

“Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give then out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!”

What seemed a rather slow-moving and staid story (not unlike steady Alexandra) surprised me in its final chapters with rich emotion and impetuosity (not unlike bubbly Maria).

This a book simple enough to read quickly yet with enough depth to ponder and study. The third person omniscient point of view is employed perfectly, bringing the reader in close and then from afar as the scene required.

O Pioneers! left me with my admiration for the many immigrants who forged a life on the American pioneer unscathed and my esteem for Willa Cather increased.

RebeccaRebecca by Daphne du Maurier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic adaption of Rebecca decades ago, when I was a child. The mood and wonderful suspense of that movie stuck with me all this time until I finally read the novel.

As I read, I marveled over Daphne DuMaurier’s brilliance in leaving the narrator nameless, only to get to the author notes at the end of my edition in which she reveals that she simply couldn’t think of a name. Regardless, I’m going to chalk it up to subconscious storytelling, which contributes to a novel in ways sometimes the author herself fails to imagine.

The lack of a Christian name further emphasized the narrator’s lack of identity in relation to the omnipresent shadow of Max DeWinter’s first wife, Rebecca.

How much of her renown is as it seems is left to the reader to the discern in the retelling by the nameless, unreliable narrator. Time and again, we see how the new Mrs. DeWinter’s naivete and lack of esteem result in spineless, morally-bankrupt actions despite a seeming sense of right and wrong in menial matters.

Mrs. Danvers is the quasi-villain you love to hate. I would’ve loved even more of her diabolical interference to propel Mrs. DeWinter into action or peril.

As in the classic Jane Eyre, the pervasive mood and internal characterization of the protagonist create a rich, complex, compelling, and suspenseful story.

Despite its lengthy narration, which runs counter to the norms of contemporary storytelling, Rebecca is beloved by many with good reason.

The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair by Graham Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The End of the Affair has been on my “to-read” list for years. Rather than reading the classic, I listened to the audiobook adaption narrated by Colin Firth. Time and time again, I backed up the audio to re-listen to Greene’s imagery and sapient phrasing, expertly rendered by Firth.

A dark meditation on love, lust, jealousy, hatred, and the existence and nature of God, The End of the Affair earns the label classic. Part of me wants to re-listen to Greene’s prose not just for its beauty but also to dissect it, trying to glean every point and counterpoint.

Maurice Bendrix’s hatred for his former lover Sarah Miles and his jealously of her milquetoast husband Henry Miles waxes and wanes through Morris’s retelling, moving back and forth from the present to the beginning of the affair through to the end and beyond. Eventually, after having read Sarah’s diary, Bendrix’s jealousy twists, finding its target in the God Sarah struggled to know and love, the God who had His own part in ending the affair.

The last section of the book is filled with incidents that bring to light the power of baptism, the veracity of purported miracles, God’s relentless pursuit of his children, and the notion that no one lies outside the realm of God’s infinite mercy.

Writers are also treated to author Bendrix’s gems about writing, extrapolated expertly to the eternal drama of life and redemption.

Sometimes classics disappoint. This one did not.