I’m finally tackling Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth after having it in my possession for a couple of years at least. Maybe tackling is the wrong word – that makes it sound like it’s a beast of a book and it’s not. I think it’s more that it’s a classic, written a certain way about a certain time and sometimes that makes these kinds of books seem intimidating.
So far I love it. But this isn’t meant to be a post about The House of Mirth. This is meant to be about the first person narrative and my struggles with it recently.
Before starting on The House of Mirth I read The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler and before that I read Here I Go Again by Jen Lancaster. Both books were first person narratives and The Goldfinch was as well. I’m not sure if I’m suffering from first person narrative fatigue because I’ve been reading it a lot recently, or if I’ve just decided I don’t like first person narrative anymore?
I used to love it. It used to bring me right into the story, like I was the one living it. I liked knowing everything that was going on in the narrator’s head, enjoyed trying to puzzle out what was happening with other people.
But my recent narrators have not made it easy on me. The Goldfinch’s Theo Decker makes some seriously poor choices and while that’s obviously good for the story, it can be frustrating to find yourself silently screaming at a narrator to not make bad choices, knowing the whole time that that’s the only way this is going to go.
Here I Go Again’s Lissy Ryder is a cow. She’s judgemental, mean spirited and a bully. This is totally the point of the story and I knew that I was going along for a ride of self discovery, that eventually she would see the error of her ways and become a less awful person. I just wasn’t prepared for it to take so long and for it to be so shallow. I felt like the first person narrative, while a trademark of Jen Lancaster books, meant that the journey was really heavy handed, like everything had to be explained instead of shown.
The Bookstore’s Esme Garland, however (bonus points for a great character name), doesn’t have a mean bone in her body and despite the fact that she’s academically brilliant (she’s an art history PhD candidate), when it comes to relationships she’s really stupid. Esme gets involved with a New York City playboy, an eligible bachelor with the American pedigree that means he’s always been able to do what he wants. When she gets pregnant after a few weeks of what he thought of as a casual fling, she ends up letting him walk away from her before taking him back, letting him make a fool of her, wanting to take him back, ending up alone in New York City with a baby. I found it almost painful to be a witness to her play by play waffling, never quite owning any decision she makes. Even the fact that most of the book takes place in a charming little independent bookstore held little charm for me. I found the bookstore characters to be straight from a bookish central casting and Esme’s inability to look beyond herself meant we never got to know any of them properly.
By the time I jumped into The House of Mirth and was introduced to Miss Lily Bart who, despite the fact that she’s an unmarried woman with no means of independence, wants more out of life on her own terms, well I was more than ready for a heroine who doesn’t think she has all the answers but who is willing to forge ahead anyway. I’m also appreciating getting into the heads of all the characters, not just the main one.
What do you think? First person narrative fatigue or have I matured beyond a first person narrative completely? Do you like a first person narrative?