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The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

The French Lieutenant's Woman - John Fowles

Let’s call it 3.25 stars. This novel is basically one big gimmick. Fowles writes well and has done his research, so he pulls off the gimmick fairly well. But it is still a gimmick, and the story itself isn’t strong enough to stand on its own. This review will contain some SPOILERS.

The story consists of a simple love triangle involving Charles (the gentleman), Ernestina (his proper young fiancée) and Sarah (the mysterious “fallen” woman). It makes a thin plot for a 467-page book; what sets the book apart is the intrusive narrator. The book is set in the 1860s, but Fowles writes it explicitly from a 1960s perspective, commenting on aspects of life at the time, and then veers off to talk about the writing of the story itself and the different ways it could possibly end.

It is an unusual choice, and in that sense it’s interesting, though in this day of author blogs, a “behind the scenes” look at the author’s process isn’t the novelty it may have been in pre-Internet days. As a reader who is interested in history, I did enjoy the author’s stepping in with asides like, “the Victorians talked a good game about chastity, but actually the number of brothels per capita was enormous,” or “let me tell you how this landscape has changed in the last 100 years” or “here are some weird household implements from the 1860s.” Historical fiction is generally expected to wear its research lightly, with the result that readers are often too busy identifying with the characters to learn much about the setting. This book doesn’t have those constraints, so the tidbits about the era are interesting, and Fowles writes well enough to get away with the occasional digression, expounding on his opinions of the differences between the two time periods.

But then we come to Sarah. Fowles tells us outright that he doesn’t know what’s going through her head – it shows, and that’s a real weakness, given that she’s the book’s second most prominent character. At first, Charles sees her as a simple “fallen woman,” ashamed and pining for the eponymous French lieutenant, who seduced and then left her. Cliché, but comprehensible. Then we learn that she never loved the guy at all; rather, she suffers from depression and feelings of isolation, and “ruined” herself on purpose to create an external cause for her outcast status and exempt herself from society’s expectations for respectable women. Now we are getting somewhere; this is what I want from literary fiction. But then we find out . . . that it was all a charade, and actually she just goes around faking maladies all the time, in hopes that a man will eventually appear, be overwhelmed by a sense of protectiveness and fall in love with her, so that she can . . . leave him? What? The author attempts to support this by having Charles read some 19th century psychological treatise claiming this is known female behavior and possibly caused by sexual repression. Which is clearly bunk in light of what we now know about mental illness, and leaves us with a nonsensical character, who may have engineered the whole plot to get back at men, via Charles, for the French lieutenant (whom she didn’t love anyway?) leaving her. Because that makes total sense. Or maybe she didn’t, and was actually motivated by . . . what? Who knows?

At any rate, if you love metafiction, you should probably give this book a whirl. If you don’t, though, the story isn’t particularly strong, and to me a basic task of fiction is the creation of a work that can be enjoyed simply for its plot and/or characters. So, while not by any means a poorly-written book, this isn’t one I’m likely to recommend.