The Author: Booth Tarkington was born in 1869 to a prominent Indianapolis family. He was a popular novelist in the early twentieth century, known for satires of the American class structure. In addition to his books, he also penned plays and created illustrations for the works of other authors. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction, and The Magnificent Ambersons is his most famous work.
About the Rating: Here’s where I had to make a decision about what kind of reader I am. The book won a Pulitzer, so obviously it has something going on, and not necessarily in a murder-mystery grab-you kind of way. On the other hand, I’m no longer a student reading for scholarship; I’m a 21st century woman reading in my downtime for pleasure. Hence the double rating: Classic for the quality of the writing, Not Bad for my level of enjoyment.
Why It’s Awesome: Tarkington’s writing is beautiful. Even at points when I wasn’t too fond of the plot line, I was admiring his eye for detail and his elegant word choice. I would hazard a guess that at least half the reason this book won the Pulitzer was because of the quiet brilliance of its style.
The time period is very interesting. I hadn’t read much about the era between the Civil War and WWI (maybe because I too often have my nose buried in a fantasy novel), and it had never occurred to me just how much transition there was: European ideas of social status changing to the more “self-made man” American ideal; clean cities filled with horses and carriages growing dirtier as automobiles appear and heavy industry grows; the rise and fall of fortunes as new technology explodes. It’s a timely novel for the early twenty-first century, when so many similar transitions are occurring.
Why It’s Not Awesome: Lovely as the style is, the characters leave something to be desired. They are well-crafted, but we don’t have anyone to root for. The main character, George Minifer, is selfish, arrogant, and meddlesome, with an old-world conviction that the rich have a right–practically a duty–to simply “be” rather than do anything resembling work. To modern American eyes, he deserves a good slap rather than the practically religious devotion his mother grants him instead.
In fact, most of the main characters possess a seeming inability to do anything meaningful or even to take charge of their own lives. It is the peripheral characters — George’s grandfather, Eugene Morgan,the shadowy nouveau riche families — who embrace their own power, while the characters of our main focus play bridge and think wistfully of what they wish they had. All this may be true to life, but it doesn’t make for an engaging story, and reading the novel feels like work rather than leisure. With such an interesting setting to start from, it seems like a shame that the plot itself is so unappealing.
Perhaps these problems aren’t so bothersome if you read Tarkington’s entire Growth trilogy (of which The Magnificent Ambersons is the middle novel), but I’m not interested enough to try the others.
The Final Judgment: A beautifully written novel, interesting as a study of the early twentieth century — but not as a pleasure read.