Monday, December 31, 2007

A failed challenge

One of the few things worse than getting stuck at the airport for hours on end is getting stuck there with an unenjoyable book, and no other way to pass the time.

By the time our plane finally left for Orlando, a week ago, I'd already finished the copy of Rhett Butler's People that I'd brought along. As it was 500 pages long, I hadn't thought to bring another novel with me... meaning I was looking at another five days of vacation with nothing else to read. So, at 5:45pm on Christmas Eve, I made a last-minute rush through an Orlando Borders, since the store was closing in 15 minutes and I needed to find something. I ended up with Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber, figuring it was thick enough to keep me occupied until I got home, at least. I knew it was a classic, but I'd never read it before, and I was amused at the thought of reading three 950-page books in the same year (Gone with the Wind and Pillars of the Earth being the other two).

Unfortunately, while GWTW proved fascinating and compelling - one of my favorite reads for the year, actually - and POTE kept my attention throughout (despite inaccuracies, modern attitudes, and some other annoyances), Forever Amber was an extreme disappointment. I made it to p.200 before setting aside my bookmark. I found the characters flat and unsympathetic; I've read that Amber St. Clare was based on Scarlett O'Hara, but although she's as self-centered and upwardly mobile as Mitchell's heroine, Amber had no depth and was uninteresting to read about. The novel does contain, as promised, vivid descriptions of Restoration-era clothing, food, living conditions, and vice (and lots of the latter), but for me, this wasn't enough to carry the story. I found myself wanting to see more of Barbara Palmer and Charles II, who are viewpoint characters in several scenes, rather than the protagonist.

I understand Forever Amber does an excellent job making readers feel like they're there during the Great Plague and the Fire of London, but alas, I never got that far. If you've read it all the way through, does it get better? Does Amber become less of a TSTL heroine, and did you care what happened to her? It's a shame I couldn't finish it, since I spent close to $20 for the book. It does have a pretty cover, though.


  1. I read that book back when I was in high school (so it was about 30 years ago) and I don't remember much of it - just that it wasn't as good as GWTW. I think that historical fiction of today is probably of a higher caliber than it was back then, because I think that book was marketed more as a romance, and that may be why it fails to satisfy as a historical novel.

  2. Never heard about the book, and it doesn't sound like I've missed much. I can't stand TSTL heroines (or doormat ones, for that matter).

    Happy New Year.

  3. It was marketed as a romance originally, as far as I can tell. I didn't notice anything very romantic about it, either, but maybe I didn't read far enough.

  4. I too read this book in high school and I remember hating Amber, although I did like the setting. The movie, for once, improved on the source material. Tillie Trotter, by Catherine Cookson, is another TSTL heroine.

  5. Interesting about the film. I'll make a note to watch it if I ever come across it. This is funny but I loved the Tillie Trotter series! I read it in preparation for an article on Cookson I wrote a few years ago. I even bought the authorized sequel, though haven't read it yet.

  6. Anonymous12:41 PM

    I haven't read Forever Amber since college, but I actually liked it. Amber is selfish, immature and sometimes silly, but the setting was so colorful that I felt transported to Restoration England nevertheless. I never really warmed to Amber as a heroine(and I REALLY didn't like her for the first part of the book), but I did develop a grudging admiration for her at various points. The second half of the book is better than the opening chapters(though Amber never goes from TSTL to rocket scientist), but your level of enjoyment by that point may depend on how annoyed you already are by TSTL Amber.

  7. Now I want to read this to see what I think! People seem to love it or hate it.

  8. After reading everyone's comments I'm almost tempted to keep reading, because of the setting, which I did enjoy. I figured it had to improve, because a reviewer from the Guardian covered it within the past few years, describing Winsor's "special brand of feminine genius" and Amber's "courage, daring and strength," none of which I saw. She didn't seem intelligent enough to have any of those qualities, not in the parts I read.

    At the point I stopped, Amber's newborn baby was left to starve for days because she was told that nursing her own child was inappropriate/unfashionable, and it took that long to find a wet nurse. That was one of those wall-banging moments for me (not literally! at 950 pages it would put a big dent in my walls), but I may pick it up again at some point.

  9. Anonymous11:20 AM

    Hi Sarah,
    I read FOREVER AMBER so many years ago; it was considered a classic even then & was compared to GWTW, which is probably why I read it; I remember finding a copy in my grandmother's spare room that I could read. I mostly liked it. I found Amber to be a lot like Scarlett in terms of undergoing so many changes and disasters and having to fend for herself, not to mention being selfish, heartless and somewhat cruel. Seems to me that the 2nd half of the book is better than the first, and I agree with the others that the setting truly kept me reading. I think this book might have been my first fiction exposure to the world of Restoration England.
    Maybe you're just not in the right mood for it, or too many 950 page books in row? Try it again later; you might change your mind.
    Re: the movie, it's okay, rather Hollywood-ish, used as a star vehicle in the 40's for Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde--what's really cool is seeing the 30-something Jessica Tandy playing Amber's maid!
    For whatever it's worth, both the novel and the movie are still circulating well in our library system.
    Just my two cents'.
    BTW, just curious, but what's a TSTL heroine?

  10. It could be I wasn't in the mood. But I'm thinking it was more because the characters were flat. I can deal with selfish, mean characters as long as they have some depth! I'll report back if I pick it up again.

    The movie, with a young Jessica Tandy, sounds even more intriguing!

    TSTL heroines are the ones you want to smack upside the head because they continue to make dumb decisions and can't see the blatantly obvious. It stands for "too stupid to live." Used most in connotation with romance novels. Here's a very good explanation, from the AccessRomance blog.

  11. Anonymous2:26 PM

    That's pretty funny. I don't read much in the way of romance novels or I guess I'd have run across that before. I've run across people I could call that though--if I wasn't a Southern gentleman, of course.
    Thanks for clearing that up.

  12. Anonymous11:38 AM

    Remember it came out in 1946 and it was considered VERY HOT. I adore this book, but Forever Amber's Great Trash, unlike Gone With the Wind, which is just plain Great. The difference was most succinctly put by my Dear Old Mum, who said, when she put both books in my hands (I was eleven, I think): "Scarlett is a bitch. Amber is a slut."

    Said admiringly of the former, disparagingly of the latter!

  13. India, I think your mum said it very well! Loved that.

    I'm trying to think about what I was reading when I was 11. Nancy Drew, for one, and probably nothing nearly as exciting as GWTW or Forever Amber.

  14. Mary Galliver6:06 AM

    I had exactly the same experience with that book. You actually made it farther than I did before giving up. What a dissapointment.