The French Lieutenant’s Woman

John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the sort of book that would-be novelists with beer and beards discuss in existential terms.

Drawing of The French Lieutanant's Woman on the cover of the novel.
 The French Lieutenant’s Woman 1st ed dust jacket.

The woman of the title is Sarah Woodruff, a young English woman enamored of and jilted in 1867 by a Frenchman, whose whore the Lyme Regis locals assume her to be.

Charles Smithson, an English gentleman with enough funds to indulge his scientific avocation and a fiancée who’s the adored only child of a wealth merchant, finds Sarah irresistible.

She’s equally besotted.

After a brutal mating, Charles breaks his engagement and returns to Sarah who he’s recognized as his soulmate.

She’s disappeared.

Fowles interrupts his story periodically to offer commentary on Victorian culture, the history of Dorset’s Lyme Bay, and his own authorial process, even appearing as a character in the story.

When Charles finally finds Sarah, Fowles offers two endings to the story.

One would have been quite enough.

Nothing Fowles reveals about Sarah makes her believable as anything other than the psychological case the local doctor pegs her as. Charles is nothing to write home about either.

If The French Lieutenant’s Woman had been written by anyone other than Fowles it would be called pretentious.

Because Fowles is Fowles, it’s called literary.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
Little, Brown. © 1969. Book Club Edition. 480 p.
1970 bestseller #2. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

This Side of Innocence made riveting by unlikeable people

Taylor Caldwell sets This Side of Innocence in the era of bustles and Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, but this odd tale of a dysfunctional family packs all the punch of a Netflix® drama.

Seeking happiness, the characters try the old standbys—sex, fulfilling work, filial duty—and still there’s something missing.


This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell

Scribner’s 1946. 499 p. 1946 bestseller #2 .My grade A-.


After his son opts for a life of profligacy, a widowed banker adopts a cousin, Alfred Lindsey, as his heir.

When it appears Alfred may marry, Jerome comes back to the family home.

Unable to stop Alfred’s marriage, Jerome experiences a sudden desire to go into banking. Soon, he finds he like banking almost as much as he likes Alfred’s wife, Amilie.

When Amilie becomes pregnant by Jerome, Alfred divorces her.

Amilie marries Jerome.

They all live unhappily ever after.

The qualities that put This Side of Innocence on the 1946 bestseller list are untarnished by time.

The unusual plot is peopled by fascinating—though not likable—characters with complex and often confused motives.

Caldwell adds insightful musings on timeless themes like love, integrity, and tact.

The result is a novel with real staying power.

Look for it at your local library.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Age of Innocence honestly pictures hypocritical era

As Edith Wharton’s title sugests, The Age of Innocence is a picture of an era.

The story opens in the 1870s. Newland Archer, from whose perspective the story is seen, is a New York nob with a law practice as a hobby; he doesn’t need the money.

Engaged to much younger May Welland, Newland urges a speedy wedding to counter the unpleasantness surrounding the reappearance in New York of May’s cousin Ellen Olenska, who left her European husband under unsavory circumstances.

Once married to May, through his inlaws, Newland gets roped into seeing whether it is feasible for Ellen to get a divorce.

It’s a touchy situation.

Divorce is considered scandalous; it would diminish the social status of all Ellen’s family. Besides that, Newland’s sympathy for Ellen has been interpreted by the family with some acuity as a love interest.

Wharton blows up the hyposcrisy of America’s late Victorian social leaders that’s ridiculed by their less-innocent children.

Wharton is a keen observer and fine writer, yet for all its literary merit the Age of Innocence has little punch. The fault is not Wharton’s writing. The problem is that shallow characters do not make deep books.

The Age of Innocence
By Edith Wharton
D. Appleton,  1920
365  pages
1920 bestseller # 4
Project Gutenberg Ebook-No. 541
My Grade: B+
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni