The French Lieutenant’s Woman: An Age-Old Plot With A New Voice

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“There is only one good definition of God: The freedom that allows other freedoms to exist.” How will it all end for an engaged mid-nineteenth-century gentleman who falls for another woman? As we will see in the French Lieutenant's Woman, even the delightfully sarcastic omniscient narrator doesn't know the answer to that age-old question!

This book review is part of my #LiveLikeJeff reading project

It's funny, though I selected the “Life of Pi” from Jeff’s shelves because it is billed as a story that will "make you believe in God," it was the French Lieutenant's Woman (the very next book that I read from his shelves) that had me listening to and laughing with a higher being of sorts

You see, the narrator views himself as God (“the novelist is still a God since he creates”) and, therefore, he hovers above the storyline and pops in and out at will, even inserting himself into the story as an actual character, not once but twice. 

I kept hoping for an appearance of the narrator who is easily my favorite character, even though he accuses me - the reader - of hypocrisy in a hilarious lecture on the freedom of his created characters or, as he calls them, “creatures of the mind.”

I’m really glad that I opted for the Audible version of this book because narrator Paul Shelley delivers a deadpan, mock formality that I think Fowles would applaud. 

For example, when describing a moment when one of our main characters is consumed by guilt and announces that he wishes to take Holy Orders, the following is read with a perfect deadpan delivery: “There was only one answer to a crisis of this magnitude, the "wicked" youth was dispatched to Paris. There his tarnished virginity was soon blackened out of recognition, but so, as his father had hoped was his intended marriage with the church.”

This surprising take on a father's reaction to his son's guilt-induced bout of piety is the reason that an age-old plot of a character trapped in the propriety of the aristocracy seems fresh. As readers, we aren't expected to relate with society or it's insistent pull on our hero, instead, we are given permission to laugh at the absurdity of a privileged life.

So, while the plot of the fallen member of society is not new (thank you Anna Karenina), the perspective is new. The narrator guides us through the turmoil of our "hero" with often hilarious honesty. He dryly observes - and accepts - inequities in religion, class and gender, therefore, underlining the absurdities. 

Fowles wrote this novel in 1969, astutely paralleling a universe of inequity in the past with the world he lived in. Impressively for the author, but sadly for us, many of those inequities reverberate across the centuries to ring true today. 

I tend to read a lot of historical fiction, but Jeff was more of a Sci-Fi guy. So, when I spied the French Lieutenant's Woman on his shelf, I considered a cartwheel. I've opened every one of his books (well most of them) with an open mind, but there is a certain feeling of contentment when settling in for a read that I know I'm going to enjoy. And this one did not disappoint. I give this book a must-read (or a listen as I did on Audible.)

#LiveLikeJeff Reading Project

This is book is part of my #LiveLikeJeff book project. When I first met Jeff, his books were kept in neat stacks on the floor of his bedroom. His books stretched toward the ceiling in sturdy towers that were nearly as tall as me. Like all things about Jeff, even his book collection seemed larger than life. Though cancer claimed my partner at the age of 40, I continue to learn from Jeff's inquisitive and encyclopedic mind by digging into the books that peppered his thoughts and helped to form his perspective.

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