Rarely do I give a book a bad review, but Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited deserves just that. I initially added this novel to my 100 books challenge because it was on the Modern Library’s list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. I am now extremely glad I didn’t commit to reading that entire list. In talking with my sister recently, she commented that the bulk of that list is made up of books authored by white men, and I’d much rather explore greater diversity than that. I’m glad that of my next 3 reading challenge books, 2 are authored by African-American men and 1 by a South African woman. But I digress.
Published in 1945, Brideshead Revisited is the epic tale of the English aristocratic and Roman Catholic Marchmain family, as narrated by close friend-of-the-family Charles Ryder. The patriarch of the family resides in mainland Europe and is absent for most of the story. In his absence, the household is headed by his eldest son, Lord Brideshead. His siblings are Sebastian, Julia and Cordelia, and his mother, Lady Marchmain, also plays a significant role in this book.
Normally I enjoy books that are more character-driven than plot-driven, but there is sometimes an exception. In order for me to like a book, I have to like the characters — even if they’re downright evil, they can still be interesting. But I didn’t like the characters is this book. They were too stereotypically artistocratic — dull and stuffy.
The narrator is the epitome of self-centeredness. For example, when he introduces his wife as a character in the second half of the book, we don’t learn her name for over 10 pages. He cares little about the children he’s fathered, rather seeking to follow his adventurous and artistic pursuits.
Sebastian the drunk is probably the most interesting character because he is the black sheep of the family. But to give you a sense of the excitement which lies ahead in this book, one of the most interesting things that happens in the first half of the book is that he sprains his ankle playing croquet.
There are also no strong female characters in the book, in my opinion. When the central female character, Julia, is developed, she is portrayed as seeking a happy marriage as her sole ambition in life. Her younger sister, Cordelia — a somewhat trouble-making youth, later turned spinster who works abroad in Spain — could have been an interesting character sketch, but she is not a well-developed character.
I stuck around for the ending, but was highly disappointed by its abruptness. Although I’ve just trashed this classic work of literature, I do have some interesting reviews upcoming — an erotic memoir, a collection of essays on Hemingway’s life in Paris and a newly-released humorous/adventure novel with a female protagonist.