This will be a personal reaction, not a proper review. And yes, 4 stars, which for a book of the stature of Middlemarch, translates as, “This is very good, but I was disappointed.”
Middlemarch is the story of a number of people in an English town in the early 1830s, written decades later with the benefit of research. There’s the idealistic Dorothea, who wants to do good in the world; the equally idealistic Lydgate, who wants to reform the medical profession; the careless but good-natured Fred; the evangelical banker, Bulstrode, who has a dark secret; and many more. Several storylines intersect throughout the novel, which touches on politics, religion, medicine, social change and a good deal more.
Eliot has a reputation for writing great characters, and yes, the characters here are all distinct, complex and believable. And yes, the writing is genuinely insightful, and when the narrator (as she often does) comments on some aspect of human nature, it’s likely to be something you’ll recognize, perhaps something you hadn't quite put your finger on before. And yet, it is a long and slow-paced novel, taking a lot of time for scene-setting and extended metaphors, and also a rather didactic one; I felt the characters were explained more than shown, smothered under layers of authorial intent. I never felt much connection to this story, though it did become more interesting as it went. While I recognize Eliot’s talent here, it’s not a book that captured me and I find myself with little to say about it.
However, my lukewarm response may not predict yours. First, I enjoy strong writing and complex characters, but am less interested in more academic aspects of literary writing, such as classical references, symbolism, or extended metaphor; those who eat all that up are likely to love this. And second, I’m just tired of reading about well-to-do, repressed English country people in the 19th century; I think I’ve reached the point at which, however insightful an author’s vision may be, it loses its luster by focusing on this particular milieu. Within that setting, Eliot’s scope is much broader than, say, Austen’s, but for all the books that have been written about it, this society is simply not that interesting. On to something else, and maybe in 20 or 30 years I’ll reread this and like it more.
On the edition: I read the Penguin Classics version, which is fine. Endnotes are somewhat more numerous than necessary, but at least they don’t spoil anything.