Sunday, June 10, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

I became aware of The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington because I saw this lovely cover popping up on a few blogs and a scan of the blurbs confirmed it was historical fiction. Naturally I wanted to read it. A closer read of the various reviews explained that it was not a new book but a re-release of a Pulitzer Prize winner first published in 1918. That made me want to read it even more.

The publisher that has now released it as an ebook (for only $1.99) with that lovely cover art is Legacy Romance. However, although a couple of rather moving love stories twine through the novel, it isn’t romance per se. So, now I really had to read it. I was about to download the book onto my e-reader, but at the last minute I decided to take it out of the library instead, knowing a deadline would keep me from letting the book languish on my growing electronic pile. I’m glad I bumped it to the front of my list.

This book is marvelous. It takes us back in time to the early 1900's, a transitional period when old ways (like horses and carriages) are giving way to factories and automobiles. Cities grow and change; people either adapt or are mown under. The novel follows the fortunes of the Ambersons, a well-to-do midwestern family, as social, historical, and economic forces and personal choices take its members from wealthy and prominent to insignificant and near destitute. It primarily focuses on one character, George Minafer, the only third generation member of the magnificent Ambersons. It is safe to say that George brings his downward mobility upon himself.

Booth Tarkington is a master of characterization. In George Minafer he creates the worst, most self-absorbed spoiled brat to ever populate a page. Although physically attractive and able to project a certain charm when he wishes, George’s arrogance and bullying behavior gain him enemies wherever he goes. He doesn’t care because he considers so few people worthy of his time. He believes in his own superiority simply because his grandfather was such an important man in the town. He’s under the impression that his grandfather’s fortune is endless, and therefore, he himself need never be concerned about such mundane things as earning a living–work is for lesser men. The narrator explains early on in the book that people are eagerly awaiting the day that George Minafer should receive his comeuppance, and the reader anxiously joins that throng.

While the story follows George, and while he loses sight of great goings-on in the world because he is so focused on himself, the world changes around him. The novel demonstrates those changes beautifully. George’s city grows up around him until it is unrecognizable. His refusal to admit or accept change is part of what will ultimately break him. Interestingly, while the reader may be glad to see George trampled down, there is a bittersweet ambivalence to recognizing that all this progress does have its downside.

The Magnificent Ambersons was made into a movie by Orson Welles that also received a lot of acclaim and now I want to see it, even though I’m not a movie person.

I recommend the book highly, whether you opt for the new ebook release or find the classic in your library like I did.

And this is yet another book added to my historical fiction challenge list. The challenge is hosted by Historical Tapestries. A lot of wonderful historical novels are being reviewed by challenge participants. Come have a look!


  1. Great review! I really enjoyed this one, too, and would like to watch the movie.

  2. I loved this book. The characters were wonderful and the ending was perfect. Great review!

  3. I haven't read the book but I have seen the movie, which I enjoyed although it's not my favorite Welles film. It made me very interested in reading the book though and learning about the source material. I think it also won the Pulitzer so that's another reason I want to read this.

  4. Didn't Booth Tarkington also write Alice Adams?