The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

December 22, 2010 at 12:00 am 2 comments

As the end of the year draws near, I’ve been mentally drawing up a personal literary “Best of 2010” list (stay tuned for the final tally!). While some of the list vacillates as I think about it, the very top, very best, and very life-changing part remains incontestable: John Fowles. He is by far the best thing I discovered in literature this year and with every new book of his I read, the more in love and in awe I am of his writing.

It started with The Magus. And I just finished The French Lieutenant’s Woman and I was, if not equally blown away, at least equally happy to have read it. While The Magus was truly an experience, The French Lieutenant’s Woman was just a good read. Genuinely good reads are rare enough, so to have achieved that is plenty impressive.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman has a rather charming set-up: a mid-20th-century author sets out to write a Victorian novel but finds himself beset by his own modern awarenesses, amusement at the Victorians, and characters who insist upon their own free will, refusing to do what the novelist necessarily wants them to. The writer is trying to be Hardy or Trollope but is too aware of Victorian (and modern) foibles to let himself really write a strictly historic piece of fiction.

Plot-wise, it is classic: there is an aristocratic, gadabout young man engaged to the shallow daughter of a rich shop owner. They decamp from London to visit the daughter’s aunt. In the English country, the gadabout inevitably meets a mysterious (and possibly malignant) young woman with a dark past who makes him see the ridiculousness of his own life. Will he stay with the shallow merchant’s daughter? Will he run off with the mysterious country woman? Or will he just ditch both and tour the Continent in search of his true self? What would Henry James do?!

I won’t tell you, but I will mention that that in the end, the novelist provides three different endings (not the three I just made up above), all of which he claims could have “really” happened. The novelist then (literally) drives off in his carriage and leaves it entirely up to the reader to decide which one to believe. Or which one to choose.

Like I said, reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman didn’t profoundly rock my world or genuinely change my life, if only for a the few days I read it, like The Magus, but it was a great book that I wholly enjoyed. Fowles’ writing style is pitch-perfect, blending in among Victorian novels one moment and then suddenly jarring you back to the 1960s before settling you comfortably back down in the land of Hardy. The characters are complicated, realistic, and, in some cases, consistently ineffable. Like The Magus, some things remain unanswered, but that doesn’t mean you are ever unsatisfied.



Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction. Tags: , , , , .

Bookish Loot Weekly Geeks: A Reader’s Self Portrait

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Em  |  December 26, 2010 at 10:35 am

    I have never read anything by Fowles, but anything I read about his works makes me want to.

  • 2. Amusing Search Queries « Literary Transgressions  |  February 14, 2011 at 12:02 am

    […] term: john fowles the french lieutenant’s woman summary Very quickly: Upright Victorian gentleman Charles Smithson encounters an unusual and […]


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