Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey

oscar and lucinda
peter carey
c. 1988
432 pages
completed 8/24/2010

read for: before i die challenge, 100 greatest novels, 1001 books

*may contain spoilers*

If there was a bishop, my mother would have him to tea.

Oscar Hopkins, a nervous and fidgety clergyman, was born to an English Evangelical minister, but left him to study the Anglican faith. Lucinda Leplastrier, an overtly modern feminist, was an unwitting heiress to a large fortune after her beloved Australian farm was sold off piecemeal by an accountant following the death of her parents mere months before Lucinda came of age. These two oddballs, square pegs living in a world of round holes, were drawn together by a mutual obsession with gambling, a compulsion that would lead to the ultimate wager that, in 1865 Australia, would change the course of their lives forever.

It took me a really long time to get through this book. I have a really frustrating issue with reading. No matter how much I am enjoying the story, the act of reading always makes me sleepy. I have no idea why! Because of this I often have to read in fairly small increments, no more than like 20-25 pages in one sitting. This can really make for slow going. And then, the longer the book is taking, the more frustrated I get. I wish I could figure out some way to not get so sleepy when I read.

To be completely honest, this was kind of a bizarre love story. Every single character, especially Oscar and Lucinda, were complete oddities. I couldn't help but laugh at the situations they would get themselves into, but then it would immediately become clear that they often had no idea how odd they were so while I was still laughing my heart would be breaking. These people were all equal parts hilarious and depressing. Which I guess was mirrored in the whole book itself. Equal parts hilarious and depressing. The best way I can think of to describe the tone of this book is quirky. Like I said, all the characters were total weirdos. This made certain characters, like Ian Wardley-Fish, totally endearing, and at the same time made other characters, like Mr. Jefferies, completely detestable. But it wasn't just the characters that were quirky, but the tone of the writing itself, its descriptions of places and people. For example, my favorite description of anyone in the novel, "Theophilius Hopkins was a moderately famous man. You can look him up in the 1860 Britannica. There are three full columns about his corals and his corallines, his anemones and starfish. It does not have anything very useful about the man. It does not tell you what he was like. You can read it three times over and never guess that he had any particular attitude to Christmas pudding." It was this attitude towards Christmas pudding that led to the rift between Theophilius Hopkins and his son Oscar.

Peter Carey has a very unique voice, though certain aspects of it kept reminding me of a wide variety of specific authors. For example, the quirky names and descriptions of people often made me think of Charles Dickens, whereas the matter-of-fact descriptions of certain body parts, functions, and ailments brought to mind Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Carey also uses a lot of words. I know that's a weird thing to say, but I mean...maybe I'm not sure exactly what I mean. The sentences were complex and the writing was often quite dense. But not in a bad way where it's hard to get past the language and into the story. If anything, I felt the density of the language only contributed to the story. Putting these different elements together lead to, as I said, a very unique voice.

Despite its humor and quirkiness, there are a lot of subjects addressed in this novel, such as 19th century feminism and the loneliness and ostricization (yes, I may have just made up that word) that came with such modern ideas. Lucinda was very much ahead of her time and was constantly thwarted and frustrated in her endeavors because of the limitations of her sex. The novel also focuses a great deal on religion, exploring different denominations of Christianity and the emergence of Darwinism. At least five prominent characters are vicars or ministers of some kind, all with differing views on their faith. Last month I posted a review of The Queen's Lady where I complained a lot about the way the author dealt with the complications of Christianity in Tudor England. I am happy to report that there will be no repetition of those complaints. Instead, I found Carey's examination of Victorian Christianity to be complex, intriguing, ambiguous and respectful. At no point did he try to say that any one idea was totally right or that any one idea was totally wrong. Everything was a valid idea.

Lastly, I should let my sister the librarian know that I will finally admit defeat and agree that "gewgaw" is a real word...albeit a stupid one.


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