Friday, April 06, 2007

Book Review: "Howard's End," by E.M. Forster

Crush Du Jour Rating: Patrick is confused! (Translation: "Um...didn't get it.")

I know, thanks to school and stuff I've been pretty lax with the book reviews, but they're coming, they're coming...I received this book from my grandmother for Christmas, along with Zadie Smith's On Beauty, which shall be reviewed pretty soon after this one. Apparently the two are connected - Smith intended her book to be an homage to this one, which she considered to be one of the best books ever written.

I have to disagree. Generally speaking, the plot is this - two families, the wealthy and liberal Schlegels, and the middle-class-but-still-well-off conservative Wilcoxes, are brought together when young Helen Schlegel and Paul Wilcox announce, and then just as swiftly terminate, a harebrained engagement. Helen and Paul recover fairly quickly, but Margaret, Helen's older sister, strikes up a friendship with Paul's mother, Mrs. Wilcox. When Mrs. Wilcox dies, with only a rough pencil-written note that leaves Howard's End, her country estate, to Margaret instead of her family, the tension only builds, even after the Wilcoxes unanimously decide to destroy the note without telling Margaret.

Things proceed on from there at a rather muddled and tiresome pace. Forster does a lot, and I mean a lot, of telling instead of showing, with Margaret and Helen and the others going on about the nature of love and marriage and decision-making and hayfever and what have you, with a great deal of philosophizing that I either didn't understand or didn't care about. I realize I may sound a bit immature, and maybe I might enjoy this book when I'm older, but as it was it simply could not hold my interest. The narrative has this annoying habit of leading a reader in one direction, only to make a sudden turn that has no bearing on the story at all. In this manner the book ends on a fairly large deus ex machina, and I left it feeling unsatisfied. For instance, Mrs Wilcox dies, the book spends several pages demonstrating that Mr Wilcox is a) mourning his wife, and b) an awful pig-man, but then a few pages later he up and proposes to Margaret! Who accepts, of all things!

For another thing, the characters are all uniformly unsympathetic and poorly developed. Helen is irrational, selfish, and thoughtless. Margaret is easily bored, haughty, and disturbingly pleased with the unearned quality of her wealth. Mr. Wilcox and his children are even worse. I couldn't find one character in which I could relate to anything, since both families are composed of snobs who really don't give a damn about anyone but themselves. And their characters have no bearing on how they actually react to things, which while it might have made the book more unpredictable, also removed any ounce of sense from the narrative. There was really no point to the whole thing, and I couldn't for the life of me guess how any of the characters had progressed from the beginning of the novel to the end. They all seemed more or less the same to me.

The point is, basically, the story was about well-off people who disagree with and make catty remarks about other well-off people, while a few not-so-well-off people show up here and there to throw a monkeywrench in things. Margaret may lecture on at length about love, but as someone who kept herself on a pedestal thanks to her money and had nothing to do with men, what experience does she have on the subject? Yes, yes, I might understand it better when I'm older, but there really isn't that much incentive in this book to ever get it a try ever again.

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