Monday, March 21, 2011

by Sinclair Lewis

George Babbitt is a middle-aged real-estate broker living in the fictional Midwestern town of Zenith in the 1920s. He has done everything “right” in life and lives with his kids and wife in a nice little town. He’s well respected in the community and is successful in business. He loves to think about his superiority over others and “subtly” brag about his material possessions.

When a crisis with his best friend sends him spiraling into a midlife crisis we learn just how unhappy Babbitt truly is. He’s built a perfect world, based on what he’s been told means success, yet he feels empty.

“Every Saturday afternoon he hustled out to his country club and hustled through nine holes of golf, as a rest after the week’s hustle.”

Babbitt reminded me quite a bit of The Corrections, except I hated that book and I didn’t hate this one. It has a similar concept, looking at the average American family and the dysfunction within it, but this one was published about 80 years earlier. I think Babbitt touched on issues that were completely new and hadn’t been discussed yet, like ambition and success vs. family values, the “American Dream” of bigger cars and bigger paychecks vs. happiness.

Even though I liked this book, I struggled to feel attached to it because I disliked the characters so much. There’s not a likeable one in the bunch. Babbitt is a self-important fool, his kids are spoiled brats, and even his wife is a bit of a simpleton. I was impressed with what Lewis said about American society in the early 20th century, before everyone else was saying it, but I didn’t love the book itself.

This was my first experience with Sinclair Lewis (who I have always confused with Upton Sinclair) and I’m looking forward to seeing if some of his other famous books, like Main Street, have the same tone.

“As all converts, whether to a religion, love or gardening, find as by magic that though hitherto these hobbies had not seemed to exist, now the whole world is filled with their fury.”


Jessica said...

I have this on my TBR list as well as a copy of main street which I am looking forward to. I had no idea what Babbit was really about so thanks for the review.

Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

It's also difficult for me to enjoy a book without caring for the characters. Usually it makes me feel very detached: I appreciate the art and the message, but can't love it.

TheBookGirl said...

Last year I challenged myself to read 12 classics, and with the exception of one, I enjoyed them all. This year, I want to continue with the classics; not sure if this one appeals to me tho. I love your comment about mixing up Sinclair Lewis with Upton Sinclair -- I find myself having to stop from doing the same thing when helping customers in our used bookshop!

Teacher/Learner said...

Great quotation at the end! I also get those two authors mixed up :D That's interesting how you liked the book, despite unlikeable characters. I'm not sure if that's ever happened to me before.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jessica - I didn't know what to expect either, I'd just been wanting to read something by Lewis.

Alexandra - Agreed, that's how I ended up feeling.

The Book Girl - I'm glad I'm not alone with mixing up the Sinclairs. I'm curious which classic you didn't like.

Teacher/Learner - It's pretty rare for me too, but it makes me think I'd probably enjoy Lewis' other work if he could make me like this one.

Kristi said...

I too have a tough time really connecting with a book when I find the characters unlikable. For whatever reason, I really loved The Corrections despite the fact that everyone in that book is totally screwed up. I might give this one a try.

Becky Hill said...

Read Main Street! I really liked that one.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Kristi - You're not alone, many people loved The Corrections. I just couldn't connect.

Becky - Will do, it's on my classics TBR shelf at home.

Bybee said...

Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis were friends, buddies, pals. I bet that was amusing when they were out with other people.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Bybee - No way! Well now you've really confused me.

Will Errickson said...

Lewis's "Elmer Gantry," about a hypocritical preacher, is pretty amazing!