68. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Year Published: 1920
Pages: 432
First Sentence: On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

It’s almost as if I’m not learning my lesson. I keep on putting off reading List books and then being thoroughly blown away by them. A few bad apples have spoiled the whole bunch.

Still, like Angle of Repose, I actually happened to pick up Main Street right when I needed to, when it had eerie resonance in my own situation. I think the main reason that I avoided the book for so long was that it has an uninspiring title almost on par with Loving.

Anyway, the book isn't about any of the things I expected it to be. It's instead about a young woman named Carol who marries Dr Will Kennicott and moves from the Twin Cities out to Gopher Prairie, MN, the town of pop. 3000 where his practice is located. In the Cities, Carol was a librarian, and she is a highly-relatable-to-yours-truly lover of books and ideas. In Gopher Prairie, she finds herself mired among stodgy people and unable to effect any of the "reforms" she wants to see, although in that particular pursuit, she's less mired than simply ineffectual.

Since November, I've been living in a town half the size of Gopher Prairie, although the temporary nature of my residence means that I haven't really been absorbed by or wrung through small town life in the same way that Carol is in this book. Still, I feel like I can aver to the truth of her feelings, being at once more and less isolated than she is, with my solitary evenings and my trips back to the my own city every weekend.

This book is great but a bit repetitive and difficult to process. It took me a lot longer to read than I expected it to. There's a lot that happens—Will and Carol get married, they have a housewarming party, she develops a crush on a young lawyer in town, she comes up with various plans and schemes, stages a play, etc etc. So maybe it's trying to echo the drudgery of her life. The novel's best secondary characters, an atheist odd-job man and Carol's maid Bea, sadly disappear too soon.

Will Kennicott ends up being the real heart of the novel. He isn't particularly special, but he's a good doctor (there's a particularly effective chapter in which Carol accompanies him on a house call to amputate a man's arm, something your average small town GP would not be doing these days) and he cares about Carol. Carol, meanwhile, is relatable and also a tool, in a way that's made me reflect a little on my own views. She's also vain, which, let's be honest, is another thing that I can relate to.

Without giving too much away, there's some late parallels between the novel and the play A Doll's House, in terms of women finding themselves and defining who they are, and stuff like that.

I usually also comment on the writing so I'll do the same for this book of course. It's good but unremarkable. I sense that that was intentional, though, meant to illustrate, as I wrote above, that nothing interesting happens in a small town. Though Sinclair Lewis was apparently satirizing the idyllic small town found in so much American fiction, nothing here is terribly funny (a statement, not a complaint). His portrayal of the young proto-metrosexual, nicknamed "Elizabeth" and widely ridiculed, is fascinating, as is the rare instance of perspective on the First World War from a time prior to the Second (thus far only glimpsed in one other book on The List, A Farewell to Arms).

This isn't one of the strongest of the 3/3s, but it's definitely worth a read, especially if you've ever been ineffectual in a small town.

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"W-why——" she observed, as she reflected that in Gopher Prairie it is not decent to call on a man; as she decided that no, really, she wouldn't go in; and as she went in.
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"I'll bet a hat it was your Vida Sherwin. She's a brainy woman, but she'd be a damn sight brainier if she kept her mouth shut and didn't let so much of her brains ooze out that way."
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"I love her for being so happy," Carol brooded. "I ought to be that way. I worship the baby, but the housework—Oh, I suppose I'm fortunate; so much better off than farmwomen on a new clearing, or people in a slum."
It has not yet been recorded that any human being has gained a very large or permanent contentment from meditation upon the fact that he is better off than others.
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