I picked up this book in large part because of all the comparisons to Gone With the Wind. The plot and character similarities are numerous, and although that classic is still the better book, Forever Amber is great fun and absolutely worth a read. Amber is an English country girl who in 1660 follows a gentleman to London to become his mistress, only to be left alone and pregnant. The result is a fascinating page-turner that takes the reader through all classes of London society over about a decade in time. Not knowing much about the Restoration, I learned a lot about the time period and particularly appreciated all the research into social history that the author had obviously done. We witness the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, and day-to-day life from the prisons to the palace. Meanwhile, Amber's life is never dull and it's great fun to read about her going through men as she makes her way up the social ladder.
There's nothing particularly notable about the character development or quality of the prose, although I didn't find them especially bad either. The descriptions are quite evocative, even though the descriptions of finery are overdone. And it's not exactly a romance novel, in that there's precious little actual romance in the book. What we actually get, though, is better: a vivid portrayal of the decadence of Charles II's court and an era when morality and love were scorned in favor of hedonism. (Yes, believe it or not, this isn't just a bodice ripper; it's actually got something to say.) As for the book's salacious reputation, it's quite tame by today's standards; Amber has a lot of sex, but none of it is on-screen or described in detail.
I was not as interested in the chapters about King Charles and his mistresses, and didn't think they added much to the book, although I seem to be in the minority there. And I felt rather let down that many of the secrets and misadventures from the early part of the book had no effect on the later plot. For instance, the prologue shows us that Amber is secretly the daughter of nobility--but she never finds out, and her true identity has no effect on the plot. I'm not sure why this subplot exists at all. And the ending was quite abrupt. Still, these are minor quibbles about what is otherwise a delightful book.