I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – #15 Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900.
I hate to say it but… I really didn’t like this book.
The novel is written about a young couple who are due to be married, staying in Lyme Regis during the Victorian period. At the resort, another young woman is seen often staring out to sea mournfully – after the French Lieutenant who reputedly stole her heart. She has occasional conversations with Charles (the fiancee) and the book is the story of what begins as his desire to help her going horribly wrong.
I found The French Lieutenants Woman to be quite a long book with not much action, especially by today’s standards. In particular, I found it really strange that the author would suddenly start talking to the reader to explain what was happening and what he thought he would do with the characters next. This took me out of the story, initially confused me and then annoyed me. There is an especially weird chapter 90% of the way in, where the future of each character is summarised and it appears that the book is over. Brilliant! I thought. I’ve finished unexpectedly early! But no. The author then writes that they are only joking and (ha ha ha) this is what really happened. You can imagine how happy I was to read that.
There is always a few lines of poetry at the beginning of each chapter (there are many) which I struggled to understand without the context of the rest of the poem and which I found very hard to relate to the text. Again, this broke up the narrative flow as some of the chapters are only a few pages long.
I hated the way that the women were portrayed in this book as simple minded and either foolish or scheming. The male characters appear to be entirely without guilt despite acting in morally questionable ways. I couldn’t warm to any of them and didn’t really care what their outcomes were.
The last 10% of the book seemed to squash a lot in, so the whole thing felt a bit rushed. I felt that all the way through, the characters acted in quite bizzare ways with very little explanation. It would also have been good to have a bit of explanation about what was acceptable behaviour at the time as you were left guessing if the characters had acted due to propriety or because they had had some kind of change of heart.
Overall I struggled to get to grips with this book. It’s long, there is very little happening for great swathes of it, there are very few characters, I didn’t like any of them and failed to be engaged in their story. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone despite the fact that I know it’s seen as a classic. Not for me I’m afraid.
Overall rating: 4/10.