As loyal readers of this blog will know, I struggled to get through George Eliot’s masterpiece (cue massive eyeroll) Middlemarch. Refer to my review for a detailed explanation, or just read the next sentence of this one. It was boring, basically. There isn’t really a plot, it’s just a description of some people going about their daily lives with nothing very dramatic ever happening. The same can be said of the plot (term is used loosely here) of The Beautiful and Damned: rich people are miserable, make poor marriage and life choices, continue to be miserable, the end. (I can’t say with authority that that’s how Middlemarch ends because I didn’t finish it, but that’s what happened in the first 500 pages) So, logically, I should have hated this book as much as I hated Eliot’s. But I didn’t, and I think I know why: Fitzgerald’s characters are interesting, and their self-destruction is a lot more fascinating than the people at Middlemarch. In that one, Dodo & Co. were more like unsuspecting tourists wandering too close to the edge of a cliff, about to tumble over without ever knowing what hit them. Anthony and Gloria, the main characters in this book, take a different approach: they run, roaring drunk and screaming, right for the cliff’s edge and never look back. It’s much more compelling and amazing and sad, and I’m still going to be mean and give the book just three stars because I am adamant that good books should have plots, dammit.
Also, I’m just going to say this and then hide from the Eliot fans’ scorn and fury: Fitzgerald is a better writer. And he’s funnier. Before you start flaming me in the comments about how I don’t know what I’m talking about (well, DUH), I will present the following quotes from The Beautiful and Damned to support my claim:
“A stout woman upholstered in velvet, her flabby cheeks too much massaged, swirled by with her poodle straining at its leash – the effect being given of a tug bringing in an ocean liner. Just behind them a man in a striped blue suit, walking slue-footed in white-spattered feet, grinned at the sight and catching Anthony’s eye, winked through the glass. Anthony laughed, thrown immediately into that humor in which men and women were graceless and absurd phantasms, grotesquely curved and rounded in a rectangular world of their own building. They inspired the same sensations in him as did those strange and monstrous fish who inhabit the esoteric world of green in the aquarium.”
“In 1913, when Anthony Patch was twenty-five, two years were already gone since irony, the Holy Ghost of this later day, had, theoretically at least, descended upon him. Irony was the final polish of the shoe, the ultimate dab of the clothes-brush, a sort of intellectual “There!” – yet at the brink of this story he has as yet gone no further than the conscious stage. As you first see him he wonders frequently whether he is not without honor and slightly mad, a shameful and obscene thinness glistening on the surface of the world like oil on a clean pond, these occupations being varied, of course, with those in which he thinks himself rather an exceptional young man, thoroughly sophisticated, well adjusted to his environment, and somewhat more significant than any one else he knows. …In this state he considered that he would one day accomplish some quiet subtle thing that the elect would deem worthy and, passing on, would join the dimmer stars in a nebulous, indeterminate heaven half-way between death and immortality. Until the time came for this effort he would be Anthony Patch – not a portrait of a man but a distinct and dynamic personality, opinionated, contemptuous, functioning from within outward – a man who was aware that there could be no honor and yet had honor, who knew the sophistry of courage and yet was brave.”
Verdict: three out of five stars