Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
I'm finally down to the single digits in my Classics Club list, but I realized that I have less than six months to go before my deadline! The other day I was at the library and just for fun, I looked to see if they had any of the books on the list on the shelves. Lo and behold there was Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. I'd tried to read it about a year ago but just couldn't get into it, mostly because I was listening on audiobook and couldn't stand the narrator, who sounded like she was reading to small children. Anyway, I gave it another shot and it was so worth it, because this book is brilliant.
Main Street is a satire of small-town life in the Midwest about 100 years ago. Carol, a bright young librarian living in St. Paul, meets a doctor at a party. He's about 12 years older and from a small town called Gopher Prairie. After a bit of a whirlwind courtship, they marry and return to Gopher Prairie, population 6,000. Carol has many good intentions and is convinced she can make the town into a place of beauty and culture, but she is foiled at every turn, by nosy neighbors, gossips, and people who think life is just fine as it is. Over a period of years, she tries to improve by volunteering on the library board, joining literary societies, and even directing an amateur theatrical.
She is also the subject of much gossip, about her clothing, her interior decorating, and her choice of friends, whether they be working-class servants, socialists, or well-dressed arty types. World War I erupts, and there are some painful reminders of racism and political backlash that are incredibly timely. There's also a character who is mocked for being effeminate which made me really uncomfortable and a terrible incident about a woman who is basically run out of town after a boorish young man ruins her reputation with gossip. It made me furious but incidents like this still happen today.
I thought Sinclair Lewis drew a brilliant portrait of small towns -- his characters are really well developed and the descriptions of scenery are wonderful. It reminded me a little of the winters in Little House in the Prairie. There's also lots of snappy dialogue and great quotes. I don't usually include this many quotes in a review but these three were so great I had to include them. This one is my favorite and I forced it upon my family with great delight:
Carol drove through an astonishing number of books from the public library and from city shops. Kennicott was at first uncomfortable over her disconcerting habit of buying them. A book was a book, and if you had several thousand of them right here in the library, free, why the dickens should you spend your good money? After worrying about it for two or three years, he decided that this was one of the Funny Ideas which she had caught as a librarian and from which she would never entirely recover.
I imagine many book bloggers can relate to this as well!
Here is another of my favorite quotes that made me laugh out loud. Carol is at Sunday dinner with some annoying relatives:
Carol reflected that the carving-knife would make an excellent dagger with which to kill Uncle Whittier. It would slide in easily. The headlines would be terrible.
Lewis had his snarky moments, but he's also incredibly insightful:
There are two insults which no human being will endure: the assertion that he hasn't a sense of humor, and the doubly impertinent assertion that he has never known trouble.
I raced through this book in less than a week and highly recommend it if you're looking for a well-written, insightful American classic. I'm sure it will be one of my top reads of the year, and now I have only seven books left on my Classics Club list!