Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. The narrator’s voice was by far my favorite part. His wry comments on the arrogance and idiocy of the characters, and how incredibly normal their selfish actions and motivations are were the heart of the novel for me.
Becky Sharp is astonishing, a truly self-made woman, hustling to escape her obscure origins. Watching her manipulate people and get her way again and again, watching her lose everything and then claw her way back from disgrace using nothing but her charm and strategic mind–it was a wonder. Is she the first female antihero? She predates Emma Bovary by about a decade. I can’t think of an earlier-written female protagonist we love to hate. (Can you?)
I wasn’t crazy about the subplot of Becky being a bad mom. I was totally ready to buy her as nonmaternal and completely uninterested in the tasks of mothering. It would be hard to imagine her as very nurturing at all. I just wish she’d been allowed to be nonmaternal without it making her more villainous. As it was, Becky’s failure (or refusal to try) as a mother was probably her worst sin. She went beyond disinterest; her actions toward her boy veered toward abuse, and that’s when the narrator started to criticize her more than usual and talk about how nurturing is natural for women, and so Becky was unnatural. That was what bothered me the most, that commentary. She tried to use her son the way she tried to use everyone she ever met, as a tool for her own advancement. The way she treated him was entirely in line with every other thing she’d ever said and done: that’s the best apology I can make for her.
I was also a little uncomfortable with the love story plot of William Dobbin as the longsuffering nice guy, the way that dragged on as long as it did and the way it was finally resolved. Amelia’s excessive mourning was ridiculous, of course, but I didn’t like how she had to be ‘brought down’ in order to accept happiness with Dobbins, who, in that climactic confrontation, was not very “nice” at all.
Some other side characters and subplots were also amusing: the rich old aunt and her whole family scrambling to do her favors and be remembered in her will, the feuding fathers, the fat brother fresh from India. I enjoyed this book more than almost any other 19th century British novel I’ve read except Austen.