The Magnificent Ambersons

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Magnificent Ambersons
by Booth Tarkington
At the turn of the 19th century the world was changing incredibly fast. From electricity to automobiles, people could either embrace the changes or get left behind. This Pulitzer-Prize winner’s title describes a wealthy Midwestern family as “magnificent” and then proceeds to chronicle their downfall during this tumultuous time.

The Ambersons’ fortune, managed by their patriarch Major Amberson, had always been there for the younger generations and they never doubted it would always been there in the future. The Major’s daughter, Isabel, married and had one son, George Amberson Minofaur. George grew up to be a self-centered young man who becomes infatuated with Lucy Morgan.

Lucy and her father Eugene Morgan have known the Ambersons their whole lives. Eugene and Isabel have always been close, though their attraction was limited to friendship after Isabel married. Years later when Isabel is widowed Eugene renews his interest to the chagrin of George. His pompous self-worth won’t even allow him to consider the match as anything less than vulgar.

I know that Isabel is the most sympathetic character, but part of me was frustrated by her actions. She allows her son to bully her into a miserable life. The fact that George is completely spoiled and expects the world to be handed to him on a silver platter has to be, at least in part, attributed to how his parents raised him. Isabel turns a blind eye to George’s cruel snobbery and there are never any consequences to his actions.

The ending feels like a really strange add on. It should have ended with George’s accident. I don’t understand what adding a trip to a psychic added to the story except to tidy everything up in an awkward way. 

BOTTOM LINE: I was actually expecting to like this one less than I did. It’s not about lovable characters or romance overcoming all obstacles. It’s a story about the world changing whether you want it to or not. It’s about people making selfish decisions and the way that others are affected by those shortsighted views. It’s about hubris and jealousy, selflessness and devotion. To me those counterpoints made for a fascinating look at this time period.

“Youth cannot imagine romance apart from youth. That is why the roles of the heroes and heroines of plays are given by the managers to the most youthful actors they can find among the competent.”

The Movie: There is a 1942 film version that I watched after finishing the novel. It was written and directed by Orson Wells the year after he completed Citizen Kane. It stars Drew Barrymore's grandmother as Isabel Amberson. I was surprised that it clocked in at a measly 88 minutes. I checked online and it turns out 50 minutes had been cut from the final version of the movie and a happy ending was reshot and tacked onto the end without Wells' knowledge. Wells once said that if his original version had been released he thought it would have been a greater movie then Citizen Kane. Unfortunately the 50 minutes of cut footage were destroyed, so we'll never know. 

SIDE NOTE: Tarkington is one of the only major authors from Indiana (Lew Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Green round out the short list). There is a local theatre named after him and I’m glad I finally read one of his books!

*This review was originally posted at The Project Gutenberg Project where I'm now a contributor!


Sandy Nawrot said...

Ugh, that movie poster is horrendous! I can't believe they screwed with the movie that much, behind his back. I wouldn't think that would be allowed!

JoAnn said...

I picked this up at the library sale a couple of years ago... your review makes me more likely to finally read it!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - Can you imagine how furious Orson Welles must have been!

JoAnn - I'm embarrassed to say how long it sat on my shelf!

Anonymous said...

Hi Melissa,
FYI - the Carmel Clay Public Library's "Critical Mass" book club is meeting to discuss this classic on Wednesday, 5/7/14 at 7pm. Since I've already read it a couple times, I won't be re-reading but I thought I might pop up there to see what they think of it.

I love the line early in the book - can't recall it exactly now - but, to paraphrase, it was, George Miniver was a boy who, at his young age, had "told a minister to go to hell." Classic.


P.S. You forgot Kurt Vonnegut in your short list. :-)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

bibliophilica - How interesting! I may have to see if I can make it that night. I can't believe I left Vonnegut off that list! I've rememdied it now and I'm so glad you noticed!