What happens when two thirtysomething siblings relive the summer reading programs of their youth in an all-out battle of the books? The race is on as they read by the rules and keep tally on their logs to see who will be the ultimate reader by Labor Day 2010.

August 26, 2010

The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles

Reading Challenge #1: Accepted, endured, enjoyed and completed.

My first 100 pages of "The French Lieutenant's Woman" was filled with memories of my high school English classes, particularly freshman and senior year. These were the years I (re)read Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, DH Lawrence, George Eliot. Fowles' book (published in 1969) mimics the overdose of imagery, landscape and detail so commonly found in 19th and early 20th century literature and, of course, is set in the English countryside in the 1860s. He duplicates the cadence so well that it brought to mind a writing exercise I did in ninth grade, writing a letter in the style of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Of course, mine was two handwritten pages, and Fowles pulls it off in nearly 500 typewritten (but mine was pretty darn good, I have to say, for a 13 year old). It was hard to focus on the text while my mind was drifting off remembering CP listing Victorian slang on the blackboard or JB making us sit by the marsh while he read us passages on meadows and landscapes.

But, as always happens, the story took hold of me (this time at around page 250) and I followed the narrator along the dirt paths, steep inclines, carriage roads and hayfields to learn more about Charles, Sarah and Ernestina. I appreciated the twist of the narrator becoming an active character in the plot, shaking up a predictable ending. Brendan was right: TFLW combines many of my literary favorites, the English countryside, a smart alec servant, a beaten but strong woman. But there was also a hint of the summer fun of a Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook. "Do you think the Sam delivered the brooch to Sarah? If so, turn to page 417. Do you think Sam kept the brooch to finance his dream job? If so, turn to page 423." (Brendan: note the obscure but pivotal reference to the plot. See, I did read it all.) Wisely, Fowles refrained from treading too far down that path. (Incidentally, I read an adult book written in the CYOA style about a year ago. I can't for the life of me remember the title or author, but it was published recently. The goal was to see how far into the book you could get before you, the character, reached the end of your life. Help, anyone?)

Well chosen, Brendan. And the movie has now been added to my Netflix queue. Dan's gonna love it, right?

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