A Tortuous Trip: The Voyage Out – by Virginia Woolf

Classic Literature, Romance

I picked this book up because of its cover: a soothing view of the sea from a boat. I bought it for the author – it was about time I’d read some Woolf. I was encouraged by the opening, which had characters that were realistic yet distinct enough to be interesting. It also had irresistible descriptions of London at the turn of the century, arguably the height of its charm.

The honeymoon phase was soon over, though. The part of the book that was set on the sea seemed to drag on and on, much like the journey itself would have. Perhaps that made it more realistic, but for a reader, the static scenery permeated to the narrative itself. It’s true, the characters were compelling enough – moody, pensive and naive Rachel; her somewhat neurotic aunt, Rachel; and of course, the Dalloways and the storm that follows them. The passengers’ interactions, with all their various tensions and desires, prompted absorption for a while, but not long enough.

It was therefore a relief when they finally reached land, despite the Dalloways’ frustrating and anticlimactic departure from the narrative. The strange country they found themselves in was intriguing and beautiful, even if the landscape, especially the mountains, were often vague. The new social context was refreshing, with more people to learn about and observe as they interacted with Rachel and the Ambroses. Still, that too grew tiresome eventually, at least in part because some of the characters were too similar to easily distinguish or understand. The expedition to the wilderness was monotonous and unexciting, save for the blossoming romance between Rachel and Terence. When the group returned, the book increasingly focused on the young couple’s relationship, which was more engrossing than most of the book. At times, Rachel’s indecisiveness and dramatic tendencies were tiresome, but at least they added dimension to a character and a situation that could otherwise have been trite – the young couple in love considering their future together has certainly been written before.

For various reasons, I put the book down at the start of the summer and left it in the UK. When I finally returned home six months later, I was determined to finish it – I’d been reading it on an off for over a year. When I picked it up again, though, I really enjoyed it. Perhaps because I hadn’t had the chance to read in a while, or because I was eager to finish it; no doubt also because much of the book’s most dramatic events happen in the last fifty pages or so. I savored those last few chapters – the couple’s intimacy and tension, the shocking illness and its aftermath. I truly felt that I’d lived with them in South America for months; it was satisfying to see something come out of it, even if it was devastating.

I found Woolf’s writing surprisingly readable – it wasn’t as dense or cryptic as I’d expected it, especially from what I’d heard about To the Lighthouse. But it was definitely slow, sometimes painfully so. She spent pages describing a scene of people or a landscape when she could have used a few lines. I did appreciate the insight into English life at the turn of the century; it felt far closer to Austen’s times than even mid-nineteenth century, let alone the present day. I just wish more of the book had been set in London, for the beautiful setting as well as a more fleshed out social and political context which the book only hinted at.

Overall, I am glad I read it, but also relieved to have finished it. It was a slog, and didn’t always provide the easy escape I was looking for. Still, I would recommend it; although I can’t compare it to her other books, from what I understand, it is perhaps a good place to start with her writing.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAA (5)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (9)

Pace: Slow

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Far from the Madding Crowd – By Thomas Hardy

Classic Literature, Romance

This book is about how the lives of four people – Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdene, William Boldwood and Frank Troy – with different backgrounds and aspirations intertwine, charting their relationships through different circumstances.

I have never felt so relieved to have finished a book – Far from the Madding Crowd is ‘thick’ and heavy, despite its short length. Although it isn’t too slow-paced, or wordy, I struggled to maintain an interest in it. The cause of its insipidity is its topic: despite the beautiful romantic story suggested by the blurb, this book is about everyday life, and love, in rural England. Bathsheba Everdene, the centre of so much attention, has ordinary thoughts and feelings, most of which are self-absorbed. Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer – and my favourite of Bathsheba’s ‘suitors’ (or hopeful admirers) – is humble and understated in the way he lives his life. The only characters that seem somewhat fantastical come to their tragic ends through the course of the story. Perhaps this suggests the underrated value in living an ordinary, honourable life – sometimes, the most safe, boring option is the one that will make you happiest.

I felt compelled to read this book, knowing it to be a largely beloved classic; there is something distinctly rewarding in reading a ‘respected’ book, despite this being a poor reason for reading one. Nevertheless, I started it, determined not only to read it, but enjoy it. But frankly, I was disappointed: I tried to like it, but as I wasn’t gripped, I found it hard to pick up. I forced myself to read a couple pages every day, ploughing through it slowly and reluctantly. It wasn’t until the end that I finally began to enjoy it, when the plot gained momentum and exciting events occurred in succession. If it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t recommend the book at all: more than once, I came close to putting it down.

Far from the Madding Crowd is Marmite: some rave about it, whilst others think it tedious. I’m not sure which I fit under – I found a lot of it hard-going, but by the end wished I had savoured it. Overall, it’s a great, well-written book, but must be read with patience: eventually, it is rewarding. It’s good for people who like old classics for their language and history, but don’t want too long a book (and don’t mind a drawn-out, sometimes monotonous plot).

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAA

Pace: Slow

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Buy at Waterstones

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)