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Merle

Merle

Villette - Charlotte Brontë, Helen Benedict It’s hard to review a classic, so I’ll keep it brief. As others have related, this book is about a young Englishwoman who, following an undisclosed family tragedy, picks up and crosses the Channel to make her living as a teacher in the fictional city of Villette. As one would expect from a classic, it’s very well-written, and I’m sure there’s plenty to analyze that I didn’t even catch. So I’ll move on to what I liked best about it.

Above all, Villette is a brilliant character study. Lucy Snowe and the people around her (and their relationships with each other) seem real in a way that’s rarely seen in fiction. There’s a lot of variation in how readers react to these characters, but to me Lucy made a lot of sense, and was in many ways very relatable even though the book was written over 150 years ago. It’s very much a character-driven book; there’s not a lot of plot, but the book kept my attention regardless (in fact, monopolized my attention over several modern books in my to-read stack). It’s also a very melancholy book. Lucy isn’t happy, she’s disappointed by the people around her, and she definitely doesn’t get a fairytale ending. Now that I've read it I can't figure out how people think it's "open-ended" with regards to M. Paul's survival. It's not open-ended. Lucy doesn't choose to spell it out, but from context and the way she narrates the rest of the book it was very clear to me. This aspect of the book is probably what impressed me the most: most authors with lonely protagonists give them wonderful, caring, supportive, long-suffering best friends by the end of the book, but life isn’t always like that. And Lucy’s love interest is a very flawed person as well--as is everyone in this book, really, which is what makes it good.

But while I certainly recommend the book, I can’t say I recommend the Signet Classics edition. First, there are an awful lot of typos. Second, the French dialogue is translated only in endnotes in the back of the book. I can only assume that the person who made this publishing decision has never enjoyed getting lost in a book in his/her life, or else assumes everyone who reads classics knows French (but don’t think because of that the book has only academic value and can’t be enjoyed!). Third, and I never thought I’d say this, but a few explanatory footnotes other than the translations would have been helpful. For instance, I had to Google “Labassecour” to figure out that it’s the name of Bronte’s fictionalized version of Belgium (and enough readers mistakenly think the book takes place in France that I’m clearly not the only one to get confused). So, I definitely recommend the book, but try for an edition that’s actually had some work and thought put into it, if you can.