The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles – Review

first, it’s hefty. very heft.  For being only around 440 pages, my copy is pretty thick, which gives me some confidence in the paper stock. That, or it’s junk paper that’s unnecessarily thick. It has a reader’s guide, which is nice but which I didn’t use at all, and a NYT interview with the author from 1969 that got only a cursory glance. I’m not sure why I had the impetus to read this book, but it has the necessary quotes on the front and back covers about how enchanting the work is, or audacious, or a wonder of contemporary fiction…It didn’t really live up to any of those things for me.

The first two hundred pages were relatively quick and easy wtih Fowles getting into the setting, the characters, and pulling his world together.  Going from memory, the novel runs along the time frame of the late 1960s and early 1870s, though  a larger gap of time exists with the Clue like myriad endings Fowles employs.  Things that stood out to me was the hypocricy of Fowles’ male lead, Charles. To his credit, Charles counts himself as a progressive individual, but he’s progressive in everything but women, and has to be dragged kicking and screaming (and disinheriting) to (maybe) end up with Sarah Woodruff. Sarah, by contrast, truly is progressive and seems to thirst for someone to talk to on a relatively equal level, though she does a bit of work to get Charles built up to that point.  The idea of art being progressive, and being at the forefront of ideas and revolution, is something that is hammered home at the end of the book, with the last two of the possible endings.  Again, just going from memory, but it seems that Fowles “elevates” anything that could be considered revolutionary to ahead of its time to the realm of art. For instance, one of the times Darwin is mentioned, and held up as the epitome of progress, I believe a comment was made about it transcending science, or being bigger than science.

Darwin being often mentioned goes hand in hand with the string of evolution Fowles’ novel is run along. Woodruff seems to be someone who learns to adapt to her surroundings to succeed.  Like Darwin’s observation of birds with differently shaped beaks to allow them to thrive in their particular habitats, Woodruff seems to adapt what is necessary to live in Lyme Regis. However, these adaptations are not permanent, and they are chosen. As much as the environment appears to be shaping Woodruff, she is shaping herself to meet her own ends within that environment and, in the end, it all seems a great deception on her part. It seems this is necessary for her to become who she eventually becomes, and for at least one of the endings to become possible.

Now, there was about a hundred and fifty pages or so, from the middle to about the three-quarter mark, where I didn’t care at all about what was on the page. It just wasn’t interesting, it was slow, and I just wanted it to get to wherever it was going.  this felt like a magician taking more time to tell you how a trick is performed than just showing you the trick. The magician finds it enthralling, but his audience may not care half as much. I didn’t care half as much. part of it was that it was boring. Another part was that Fowles wanting to break that fourth wall and talk to the reader, letting the reader know that this is really a work done in the style of a Victorian novel, and isn’t it clever? got old. I know it’s not a Victorian novel, yes you’re being clever with it, now please get back to the story. His meta of his metafiction just turned me off for great gaps of it.

He pulled me back in with the three endings, though I never got back into it to the same degree as I was for the first two hundred pages.

Barnes and Noble link

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