Based on a friend's suggestion (thanks Anne!), I'm adding Uncomfortable Plot Summaries to my reviews of the Top 100 novels. Credit for the concept/idea/whatever you call it goes to postmodernbarney. I'm not terribly good at them yet, but I hope to improve as the project progresses. Also, this book is available through the highly awesome Project Gutenburg HERE.-M.R.
First Sentence: Those two girls, Constance and Sophia Baines, paid no heed to the manifold interest of their situation, of which, indeed, they had never been conscious.
Uncomfortable Plot Summary: Two sisters outlive their usefulness to the patriarchy and then die.
The Old Wives' Tale is a weighty tome and very pleasant surprise. The edition I read is burdened with an introduction by John Wain, who I've never heard of, which claims that "[i]t is standing proof that a writer of the male sex can write with real perception about the imaginative and emotional lives of women." As you might imagine, I had to raise my eyebrow at a statement like that, made by one man about another man's writing. But despite the reservations that caused, I enjoyed the novel immensely.
It's too huge to summarize, but the premise is extremely simple. Two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, begin as beautiful young women, live their lives, and then die. (Spoiler brought to you by the table of contents: the last two chapters of the novel are titled "End of Sophia" and "End of Constance.") Constance is older than Sophia by one year; she stays at home in St. Luke's Square in the fictional Potteries town of Bursley (England) married to Samuel Povey, who amicably took over her father's shop. Meanwhile, Sophia elopes with a travelling salesman, Gerald Scales, and they go off to live the high life in Paris.
The style is, I think, quite similar to The Magnificent Ambersons, i.e., a sort of fond mockery. Arnold Bennett, though, is less bitter about the march of progress than Booth Tarkington seemed to be (although the latter was writing a decade or so later, about the United States).
There isn't much in the way of plot, exactly. It's more episodic, and there are lots of nice parallels and contrasts between the sisters' lives, some that you have to look for, and others you don't.
The themes (topics, whatever) are even clear enough that I managed to grasp them: life, aging, death. Three things that every single person has in common, no matter what you might believe it means, or hope will follow. This is something that I know I'm still too young to really appreciate, but age preoccupies me constantly, and this book definitely got me thinking about some things even harder than I did previously. It's also blessedly free of the "death in fiction" issues I had with Ironweed and The Sheltering Sky.
As for the whole "dudes writing about ladies" thing, I'm kind of on the fence. I'm not sure exactly what differences exist between how men and women actually experience life, but I'm not convinced they're that extreme. In fact I think it's more of a stretch for a young woman of 2010 to try to write about an old woman of 1910. I can barely contemplate what it would be like to be mostly dependent and unable to vote, etc etc. (John Wain even admits that his claim is a bit outrageous, and adds that he's gotten his "women friends" to read the book for the past 25 years, "and the suffrage has been overwhelming: it is good; it tells the truth; it sees us as we are." Emphasis mine. Holy loaded term, Batman!)
FYI I tend to think of most books that are explicitly about women as "lady books," having less universal appeal than something with a more evenly distributed cast, but I think this one is an exception.
Samuel had never correctly imagined the matter of its heralding. He had imagined in his early simplicity that one day Constance, blushing, might put her mouth to his ear and whisper—something positive. It had not occurred in the least like that. But things are so obstinately, so incurably unsentimental.
He was adopting the injured magisterial tone of the man who is ridiculously trying to conceal from himself and others that he has recently behaved like an ass.
They tried, in their sympathetic grief, to picture to themselves all that she had been through in her life. Possibly they imagined that they succeeded in this imaginative attempt. But they did not succeed. No one but Constance could realize all that Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)