Great Expectations, even greater characters

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What a sense of accomplishment! I finally finished reading “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens (just in time to lead a book discussion on it, I might add). I have to admit that when I first started reading this long novel I had second thoughts about what I’d gotten myself (and our book group) into. When I first met Pip he was in a foggy graveyard being accosted by a convict. The convict’s dialect was hard to follow. It seemed very much like an old English novel … with the pages ahead of me stretching bleak as the marshes Pip described.

I had picked the book because it seemed like it was about time to read a classic. Most of the books for the group are more contemporary. Our last pick was “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein.

This being the 200th anniversary year of Dickens’ birth, this author seemed like a good choice for a classic novel. Charles Dickens was something of the James Patterson of his day, but his work has endured.

After a brief polling of fellow readers, most suggested reading David Copperfield …. but it’s such a huge book. “Great Expectations” seemed more manageable in terms of the time commitment.

That opening scene in the graveyard was off-putting to me as a reader, but I pressed on. Then something wonderful happened. Almost immediately, I was drawn into the book by the character of Pip … and also by the wry sense of humor throughout. This was a funny book. And did I mention the descriptions of everything from Pip’s house to the characters? They were just amazing.

One of our book group members shared an interview with John Irving that appeared recently in the New York Times in which he said reading “Great Expectations” was one of his most memorable experiences because Dickens’ descriptions had transported him right into the pages. How very true.

The book also has such a contemporary feel that it’s hard to believe it was published in 1861. Americans were in the throes of the Civil War with a president who had grown up in a log cabin, and here’s Dickens describing the refined life of an English gentleman in London. How vastly different those two cultures were at that time. Again and again, it’s clear what an old society he was writing about, with its class system and debtor’s prison.

Finally, I might just mention how much I loved the names in Dickens. Pip. Mrs. Joe. Pumblechook. Orlick. Mr. Jaggers. Wemmick. And of course, Miss Haversham. The author has created these utterly memorable characters we can enjoy 150 years later.

If we get another dog or cat, let’s just say he’s going to be named Wemmick or Pumblechook (Pumble for short).

I don’t know that I’m going to charge off and read another Charles Dickens novel just yet like a literary Don Quixote, albeit armed with a Kindle. I plan on savoring the echo of this novel for a while … while I polish off a nice, light M.C. Beaton mystery.

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