Thursday, February 6, 2020

Book 219: Of Human Bondage



"He yearned above all things for experience and felt himself ridiculous because at his age he had not enjoyed that which all fiction taught him was the most important thing in life; but he had the unfortunate gift of seeing things as they were, and the reality which was offered him differed too terribly from the ideal of his dreams." 

Dates read: March 25-30, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition)

Sometimes I think about my younger self and I want to shake that girl by the shoulders. I took myself so seriously, took the world so seriously. I was so sure of things, and while I do sometimes miss that clarity of certainty, I think I'm happier now. I tend towards the "control freak" side of things, and the more steps I take towards letting go of that need to be in charge of everything, to know where it's all heading, the more relief I feel and the better able I am to roll with the punches. I wish I could tell that girl that I was how to loosen up a little bit, how to think a little more broadly...but maybe all that can really teach those lessons is time.

Anyone who's ever taken themselves too seriously will recognize a kindred soul in Philip Carey of W. Somerset Maughum's Of Human Bondage. We meet him when he's still a child and very recently orphaned, going from a relatively privileged life with his mother to a much sparser one with his aunt and uncle, the latter of whom is a pastor in a small town in the British countryside. Scared a bit by his distant uncle, he escapes into books and becomes a voracious reader. The next year, he's sent to boarding school, where his disability (he has a clubfoot, which gives him a limp), combined with his shyness and senstitivity, makes for a generally unhappy experience. He becomes passionately religious and plans on a career in the clergy, but when his prayers for a cure for his foot are unanswered, he loses both his faith and his direction in life.

He goes to Germany briefly, comes back to England and tries being an accountant, which doesn't take, then to France to study art, then back to England again, where he decides to settle down and study medicine, which was his father's career. But all his indecision has driven down his available resources so he'll need to live very modestly until he's a doctor and can start earning a living...and then he meets Mildred. Despite Philip's self-pity, he's had a few relationships with women at this point, and is actually in a good one, when he meets the waitress his friend has a crush on. Philip becomes obsessed with her, despite her obvious disinterest in him and lack of social skills. His situation eventually becomes desperate, but with some kindness and a bit of luck, it resolves itself.

If you've been reading here for a while, you know I'm a die-hard never-DNF (did not finish). This has lead to my spending my time reading books that I hated or worse, bored me silly, and I very much understand why other people do put down books that aren't working for them. But even though it does backfire on me sometimes, other times it pays off to stick with a book, and this was one of those instances. About halfway through it, I was sick of Philip and his moping and the garbage way he treated women and his refusal to understand that as wonderful as self-discovery is, there's no money in it. The whole book is his story of growing up, and he was so grating that I wasn't at all invested in him or rooting for him to succeed. But then he starts to mature, puts his head down and works hard, uses his own hard-earned life lessons and experiences to be a good doctor to the people he sees. And by the end of it, when he does find some measure of happiness and chooses to do the harder, better thing, I couldn't have been happier for him if he were an actual person and a friend at that.

I've always been a character-over-plot type of reader, and this book is all the former...the only major outside event is the Boer War, which happens late in the book and while it does have an impact on Philip, it's pretty far removed from the central themes of the coming-of-age story. In some ways, it suffers for its fixation on Philip...like I said above, he can be a hard character to really sympathize with, particularly early on. But the payoff in the back half is real, and seeing him grow as a person is really rewarding. This is a good book, a very good one even, but it may not be the right book for every reader. If you're looking for a dynamic plot, or lack the patience for/interest in a long-term character study, this probably isn't going to be something you enjoy. If you've read what I've written and are intrigued, though, I highly suggest you get ahold of it...it'll be a rewarding experience!

One year ago, I was reading: The Buried Giant (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Sellout

Three years ago, I was reading: Flowertown

Four years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

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