This is one of those books that I bought during a “Buy 2 Get 1 Free” sale on Barnes & Noble classics when I was way too young to actually read or appreciate this book. I’m glad I waited to read it though, because I think a lot of the satire would have been lost on a younger me.The subtitle of the book is “A Novel Without a Hero,” which seems harsh toward some of the characters by the end, but also fits. The novels spans the course of (I think) about 25 years. We start with two of the main characters, Amelia and Rebecca, graduating from their Miss Pinkerton’s Academy.
Right away, the reader learns that Rebecca is from a shameful and impure family of artists and dancers, that she’s conniving, selfish, and manipulative, but also clever and charming when she chooses to be. Amelia, by contrast, is innocent, naive, and much too kind for her own good, but also comes from more money and a more reputable family.
From the day the two girls leave Miss Pinkerton’s, Rebecca infiltrates herself into Amelia’s family and her world. They grow up, marry, have children, lose their husbands in various (and very different) ways, and end up finding their own personal (also very different) happiness at the end of the novel.
The best part about this book wasn’t necessarily the story in my opinion, but the way it was told. Thackeray is such a funny author. He balanced inserting himself into the story with letting it unfold without much narrative guidance so well. He likens the whole story of these characters’ lives to an unfolding play, only for the sake of vain entertainment rather than actual lives.
He also constantly draws attention to the liberties authors take with their characters actions and thoughts, things that no one would ordinarily know for sure except that character.
He also effectively trivializes almost everything about 19th century culture in a way that translates really well to modern times. Thackeray would probably have a hay day satirizing the cultural practices of today, especially American practices. His writing style reminded me of a more subtle Chuck Palahniuk and slightly broader David Sedaris.
I haven’t really written about the premise or the story at all (oops), but this book highlights the pointlessness and vanity in almost every practice that seems extremely important to society during the course of one’s life.
And who doesn’t love a book that was published over 150 years ago, but remains sickeningly relevant? ◊
As long as we have a man’s body, we play our Vanities upon it, surrounding it with humbug and ceremonies, laying it in state and packing it up in gilt nails and velvet: and we finish our duty by placing over it a stone, written all over with lies.”
– page 412
“Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! [Vanity of vanities (Latin)] Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us had his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?–Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”
– page 680, best last line