This is a long, long book, and the first in a series, though I understand that they mostly stand alone so you don't really have to read them in order. It centers around three women: one married, one single, and one widowed, and for each of them, the central question is the same - do I go with Mr. Dull and Dependable or do I go with Mr. Good Looks Who Will Spend All My Money and Ruin Me?
It might have been a more exciting book if Trollope was a more radical author, but I'm not spoiling too much to say that Trollope was actually a very conservative author. Everyone ultimately Does the Right Thing in a very Victorian way, but not before flirting with impropriety enough to raise the question asked by the title: Can You Forgive Her?
Besides jilted suitors and gentleman wastrels, there is a bit of Parliamentary politics in this book which I believe assumes greater importance in the future volumes.
Anthony Trollope had the gift of narrative and character development, so if your only exposure to Victorian social drama is Charles Dickens, then give Trollope a try. That said, I would probably start with The Way We Live Now, which I thought was a better book with a more engaging story.
Simon Vance is one of my favorite audiobook readers, and he delivers great Victorian performances equally well with his readings of James Bond novels.
With a hundred years of hindsight, we've learned so little.
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is famous for disgusting America with its tales of meat packing workers falling into vats and rendered into lard, and all the things that went into sausages and tinned beef. (Cigar butts and poisoned rats not even being the most disgusting ingredients...) But as Sinclair said about his most famous book, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." The Jungle is not primarily about the problems of an unregulated meat industry. It's about the crushing brutality of capitalism, and the problems of unregulated accumulation of wealth. No wonder that Americans prefer the less political vegetarian version.
Although Sinclair was a muckraking socialist with an obvious agenda, The Jungle is still a compelling novel in its own right. Jurgis Rudkus is a Lithuanian immigrant who comes to America with his young wife Ona and his extended family of in-laws. Initially believing they have found the promised land of opportunity and plenty, they are quickly taken in by various schemes meant to impoverish, indebt, and enslave immigrants like them. At first only Jurgis has to work in Chicago's meatpacking district. He is young and strong and believes hard work will be rewarded, and those who warn him of how the meatpackers will use him up and dispose of him are lazy whiners. Of course, he soon discovers otherwise. The family undergoes one mishap after another, until within a year, even the children are reduced to selling newspapers on the street and still they are all barely staying alive.
Then things get worse, and worse, and worse. Jurgis is a modern-day Job, with no God to blame his troubles on, only capitalism. He has several ups and downs, but every time he catches a break, it's quickly followed by yet another brutal smackdown. Sinclair was trying to make the reader feel sorry for Jurgis and his poor family, all of whom end up dead, prostituted, or beggars by the end of the book, and you will. The poor man just cannot win, and if he makes mistakes and chooses the less noble path when given a choice, it's pretty hard to judge him if you've never been homeless on the streets of Chicago in the wintertime.
The Jungle is a grimly detailed look at early 20th century America. Sinclair was muckraking, so obviously he's showing the ugliest bits of America he can, but history proved that most of what he was alleging was true, even if his conclusions were questionable. Even if you are strongly anti-socialist, The Jungle is an eye-opening story, and still relevant after all these years. If you think that the horrors depicted in this book are relics of a previous era, just remember that to the extent that the very worst of these abuses are now curbed (somewhat) by government regulations, those government regulations are exactly what "free market" advocates hate and want to abolish.
4 stars. Knocking one star off because while Sinclair mostly kept his didacticism in check throughout the book, using gripping drama and only a little bit of exposition to arouse the horror he intended, the last chapter was nothing but socialist sermonizing, making it less a climax than the author climbing onto a soapbox to deliver his moral.
I have to ding this version for the unfortunate choice of narrator: I've enjoyed several of Audible's Signature Performances, but Casey Affleck's reading was monotonous and completely lacking in passion. His voice lacked distinction, and he sounded like a schoolboy reading a book aloud to the class. Not every celebrity actor makes a good audiobook narrator.
This was a fantastic melodrama, worthy of being compared with any other Victorian novel, with a large cast of characters, a dozen subplots, and a biting, satirical wit that Trollope applied to what he saw as the greed and lack of class evident in London in his day. Other reviewers have commented on how Augustus Melmotte is entirely believable as a 19th century Bernie Madoff, and his ponzi scheme house of cards has been seen over and over again on Wall Street. But if The Way We Live Now were just a book about greedy high society types being taken in by a con man, it wouldn't have as much to recommend it. What makes this book great are the characters, from Melmotte himself to the many other players large and small, all of whom do wind up being interconnected in some way, though not all tie into the central storyline.
Of course a great deal of the book is taken up by marital intrigue -- that is to say, pretty much everyone is trying to get married. Some are trying to marry for love, some for financial security, some start seeking one and wind up choosing the other, but there are so many couples and would-be couples in this book, you almost need a dance card. They're each and every one of them different, with their own vividly described motives. Some are dastardly, some are grasping, some are naive and sweet, some are vulnerable, some are just weak. A few are even noble. But it's all a grand drama, and Trollope, paid by the word like most authors in his day, gets to indulge the reader in chapters full of resolution for each individual character in a way that modern novels, which favor tightness and paring away of unnecessary subplots and secondary characters, don't allow. It's a big, wordy book but if you like dramas, every bit of it is entertaining.
Timothy West really livened up the reading with perfect dry English wit to bring out Trollope's satirical tone. One of the best narrators I've heard on Audible.com; every character, even the women, was distinct.
Eclectic, avid listener, favorite book is the one currently in ear.
I have search for this book on Audible regularly, hoping it would eventually appear - oh my goodness, it was well worth the wait! The book is the much beloved, Pulitzer Prize winning classic we all met in school.
The only question left is "how is the narration?"
The answer: Sissy Spacek does as good as I have heard or better!
Wish I could give this book a 10 star rating.