The Iliad, The Bell Jar, and A Room with a View

I got the idea for this new feature from the lovely Kate Pfeil over on YouTube. Everyone should go check out her channel!

In this feature, I will give a brief review of three classics I’ve read recently. I’ve always felt kind of weird about the prospect of writing a full review of a classic. I worry it will turn into a full on academic essay. So I thought this would be a good format to try. I’m going to focus mainly on books I either haven’t read before or haven’t read in a really long time. So let’s jump right in to our first three!

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The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

My Rating: 3 stars

I picked up The Iliad less because I really wanted to read it and more because I know as that as someone getting a PhD in literature I need to be familiar with it. Reference to it are everywhere across literature. Epic poems really aren’t my thing (poetry in general isn’t really my thing), and I get kind of bored with stories that are mostly descriptions of men fighting each other. So I knew going into this that it probably wouldn’t be my favorite. I ended up liking it about as much as I expected. I was definitely bored during parts of it and trying to keep the many characters straight got confusing. There are just so many names getting tossed around!

However, there were several parts that I enjoyed a lot and the language is, of course, lovely. Everything surrounding Patroclus’ death was so moving. I can certainly see why people across centuries have been invested in his relationship with Achilles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorites parts of the epic were the entirely too few and too short sections focused on the female characters. I wanted to see way more of Helen and Briseis. Their stories and struggles are far more fascinating than men killing each other. I plan on eventually reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls to see a take on Briseis’ point of view.

Overall, even though it wasn’t my favorite, I’m glad I read it to experience the beauty of Homer’s language (or Homer’s language as translated by Fagles) and so I can understand the plethora of references to it.

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

My Rating: 4 stars

This is my second time reading The Bell Jar. The first time was the summer before my senior year of high school, at which point I adored it. I stayed up all night to finish it and found Esther so relatable. I’ve wanted to reread it for a while now, and I thought books-and-cookies‘s July Re-Read-a-Thon would be the perfect opportunity. I still found it incredibly relatable in multiple ways. It’s an unromanticized look at a young woman’s mental health struggles that draws heavily on Sylvia Plath’s own life. Plath gives us honest and unflinching portrayals of depression, suicidal thoughts, and psychotic breaks. Also striking is the picture she paints of the 1950′s female experience and how it contributes to Esther’s mental health. Even though the book was written over half a century ago, these experiences still ring true for modern women. I think part of what makes this book a classic is that so many women over the years have been able to see their lives and struggles echoed in it.

Though my 17-year-old self would have given this book five stars, I didn’t feel quite the same adoration this time around. I had a hard time getting into the book at the beginning whereas the first time I read it I couldn’t put it down. I think it may be due to Esther as a narrator. Sometimes being in her head is just frustrating due to her attitude and thoughts toward other people. But that is something I know I loved as a teenager. The writing also feels rushed and events can be hard to follow. I saw another reviewer refer to it as “fragmented,” which I think is a good description. It makes sense considering the subject, but sometimes it’s confusing for the reader. When Joan showed up, I had to flip back through the first half because I had no idea who she was. And that’s as someone who has read the book before.

Overall, I’m so glad I revisited this book even though my feelings about it have changed. It’s a poignant portrayal of mental illness that I think many women may be able to see themselves in.

Room with a View

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

My Rating: 4 stars

A Room with a View was my book club’s pick of the month for September, and I was excited to read it. This is the first Forster book I’ve read, and I’ve heard great things about him. I wasn’t disappointed! It is the story of a young woman, Lucy Honeychurch, coming of age and breaking out of Edwardian England’s restrictive social norms. Since I love a good story about a woman breaking the rules, I naturally enjoyed this quite a bit. Forster is also an excellent social satirist; I’d honestly consider him on par with Jane Austen. The characters are easily the best part of this book. Lucy is a sweetheart and it’s easy to love and root for her, but I’d say the minor characters are even more entertaining. Her mother and brother are hysterical, as are many of the other guests at the Pensione Bertolini. My favorite was, rather surprisingly, Cecil Vyse, Lucy’s deplorable fiancé in the second half. He is such a pretentious, reprehensible twit that it was impossible to not enjoy every scene he’s in.

My one complaint is that I would have liked to see a little more of the romance between Lucy and George. I loved the scenes we did have of them; their conversation by the River Arno is wonderful and the scene among the violets is swoon worthy (can’t say I blame Miss Lavish for putting that in her book). But there ultimately aren’t many scenes between them, which made their love story feel a little sudden. In particular it would have been nice to see more of George. Since we are following Lucy for most of the story, I felt I knew her pretty well by the end. But we have comparatively little of George. I liked what I did see of him and wanted to get to know him better so I could truly support their romance.

Overall, I loved this book despite having a few nitpicky things to complain about, and I’ll certainly be picking up more of Forster’s work. It’s a social critique and coming-of-age story worthy of all the praise it has received.

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