Fin: ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

by John Fowles

  • Date finished: Sept. 5, 2012
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1969
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading list: Fall 2012; 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25
  • Quick thoughts upon finishing: First, when I went to find a picture for this blog post, I saw stills from the 1981 film adaption of this book, starring … Meryl Streep? Um, not who I pictured playing Sarah, but whatever.
  • OK, now that that’s out of the way. I found myself simultaneously completely taken in by The French Lieutenant’s Woman and a little disappointed in it. On one hand, I love the Brits. I love reading about the Victorians. I didn’t even mind John Fowles’ occasional ramble into meta-fiction. Instead of annoying, I found his meta-chapters kind of … cool? Enlightening? I feel like I learned something after reading this, which is more than I can say about a lot of regular fiction.
  • And yet, by the end, I didn’t want Fowles to be so concerned with meta-fiction — I just wanted him to give this story a satisfying, or at least definite, ending. I grew to care about these characters, goddamit. Sure, Sarah confused me but I was hoping the ending would clear up some of those misconceptions and identify Sarah for what she was: was she a tease, a man-hater, silly, overly romantic, or could she possibly be doing all this stuff for the greater good? What we got was three completely plausible endings and Fowles — who decides to jetset back to the Victorian era and take a stroll through our story — who lets us … what, pick which we like best? Oh, behind door No. 1 is probably the most plausible ending but it’s pretty boring. Behind door No. 2, aw well isn’t that sweet? Wouldn’t we all like it to end that way? And behind door No. 3 — the last door I’m going to show and therefore it’s the one that’s going to stick, according to my “theory” of literature — is something that makes you feel like you slogged through this 400+ page, relatively-interesting romance novel for nothing.
  • It’s a little frustrating. And that last bit was probably a confusing unless you’ve read the book, so sorry about any spoilers. Regardless, I’m still fascinated by the character of Sarah — who is she anyway? What is her motive? What is going on inside her head? Fowles readily admits he has no idea, so he’s no help. She’s a constant enigma and I can’t figure out if she’s a symbol of feminism breaking free from Victorian constrictions or just bat-shit crazy. Seriously.
  • Frustration. I’ve said it before but it’s really how I feel about this book, though I will admit while reading it, I was engrossed. Like I said, I love the Brits. I love Victorians. And I loved 99 percent of this book, because that’s what it was all about. But the ending leaves me on a hitch. I know if I think too hard about it, I’ll come to the conclusion that that’s how it should end. How it’s supposed to end. But I’ll leave that to the scholars with more time on their hands. Maybe I’ll give The French Lieutenant’s Woman another try in a few years. Maybe I’ll watch the creepy Meryl Streep movie. Maybe then I’ll get it and my enjoyment will be 100 percent bliss.
  • Awards: In 2005, Time chose this book as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.
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