Monday, June 02, 2014

My Life in Middlemarch

When I added My Life in Middlemarch to my list after reading glowing reviews, I expected to encounter something similar to Julie and Julia for the bookish set. Since I've only seen the film version of the latter, I can't adequately judge if this is a valid comparison, but the first parallel I noted was that each author's famous muse steals the show.

Rebecca Mead, a writer for The New Yorker, has penned this extraordinary memoir about her lifelong relationship with George Eliot's masterpiece, which some critics consider the greatest English novel. Mead combines biography, literary criticism, travelogue and personal reflection to explore the impact a single book can have on a reader. Yet Mead keeps herself in the shadows and the spotlight focused on Eliot.

Mead brings herself into the story somewhat reticently, as if she dares not suggest to her audience she is worthy of sharing a stage with Eliot. While this humility is to her credit, I would have liked to get to know Mead a bit better and understand why this novel, of the hundreds she has undoubtedly read, spoke so strongly to her for three decades.

I did not first read Middlemarch at age 17 as did Mead. My high school experience with Eliot was Silas Marner, which like most of my classmates, I did not appreciate at the time. As a teen, I would've found Middlemarch slightly less tedious than Silas Marner only because it had a bit of romance. I would've been enchanted by the dashing Will Ladislaw and, had I become bored with the other inhabitants of Middlemarch, skipped to the end to find out if he and Dorothea managed to get together.

I was in my 40s when I finally read Middlemarch, but even with three additional decades of maturity, I still did not successfully mine it for profound insights as Mead did, so I'm grateful to have her as a thoughtful and articulate guide to its nuances and I look forward to re-reading it in my 50s.

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