Our Mutual Friend

by Charles Dickens


3/10 (Doesn’t hold a candle to Tolstoy)

This review will be unhelpful to most people, but it helps me to log my thoughts so I can look back and better understand my frame of mind at the time. The two biggest CAVEATS are that 1) I didn’t get past the 1/4 mark of the book before giving up and 2) I tried to read it right after War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Thus I couldn’t help comparing it (very unfavorably) to those two.


So this critique is admittedly unfair, but I hope those reading it will allow that it would be hard, after Tolstoy, to see Dickens’s last completed novel as anything other than superficial, tedious and overly-cartoonish. Perhaps you can also admit that it makes sense to read Dickens and Tolstoy in close proximity since they were essentially contemporaries. In any case, I still love A Tale of Two Cities and, to a lesser extent, Bleak House, but now I can’t help suspecting just a bit that my satisfaction may have been misplaced when I read them a few years ago.


That is how much Tolstoy can alter one’s perspective, I suppose. But reading Dickens’s silly characterizations and saccharine sentimentality draws out the richness of Tolstoy’s prose all the more clearly. I better appreciate the latter’s psychological insights and his weighty-yet-organic descriptions. It’s hard to describe but there is just a fullness to Tolstoy’s writing that becomes all the more evident when you see something as vacuous as “Mutual Friend.”


I do appreciate the creativity of Dickens’s wordplay, his imagery and his wit. But it seems entirely ostentatious and devoid of real heft or soul. Also, after just a couple hundred pages I already have a pretty good idea of where it’s going, even though it’s not yet really apparent who the protagonists are (and I see from the other reviews that my suspicions are correct). In any case, I can’t avoid developing the impression that while Tolstoy was writing high art in Russia, Dickens was engaged in virtual child’s play back in England.


Again, considering my above disclaimers, there’s also a good chance that I’m just burnt out on long novels. Or if not burnt out on long novels, it’s still perhaps unfair to compare the two directly, since both their subject matters and style were so disparate. This last rebuttal is not entirely convincing to me; the hypocrisy of the aristocracy figures heavily into both of their writings. And again, they were contemporaries, so why wouldn’t it be logical to compare them to each other?


But still, this is why I’m not getting rid of the book, but merely placing it back on my to-read shelf. I recognize the possible injustice of my criticism and want to give it another shot later on down the road. I fear, however, that completing “Mutual” will just lead me to re-reading and inevitably depreciating what I consider to be Dickens’s two best books: “Two Cities” and “Bleak House.”

 
Original Review
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