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6th May
2010
written by Steph

Back in my pre-book blogging life (it’s hard for me to remember such a time did exist), I read A Room With a View by E.M. Forster.  It was one of those books that I understood on a critical level, one where I completely understood what the author was trying to convey to his readers, and yet it was a book that I didn’t particularly enjoy. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t get out of my mind all those times I’d tried to watch the movie as an undergraduate, inevitably hungover and therefore doomed to fall asleep every time it was on. I had always thought the movie was rather dull (clearly), and I didn’t find the book all that different, if I’m honest.  It had its moments, for sure, but ultimately I thought it was fairly unremarkable. Still, I had heard that Howards End was Forster’s masterpiece and decided that I would read it, even if A Room With a View didn’t blow the wind up my skirt (as my mother would say). It seems to be the book that most people love best of his, and critically speaking, I believe it’s received the greatest accolades. In theory, it’s not hard to summarize the plot of Howards End. It’s fairly straightforward and linear, and yet I’ve been shying away from plot summaries of late.  Not just for you, gentle readers, but for me as well.  I picked this one up knowing nothing about it.  Honestly!  I thought it was about academia, for some reason, which… it isn’t.  I guess what I’ve been finding of late is that I can tell you what happens in a book, but in so many cases that’s not really what I think the book is about.  And whenever I try to write a synopsis of Howards End, it seems flat and lifeless, and really the book is anything but. So instead, I will tell you that this is a really rich novel filled with wonderful, English humor, as well as fantastic insights into the class system and cultural myopia.  I immediately found it worlds more engaging than A Room With a View, and agree wholeheartedly that this is an example of an author working at the height of his powers.  I felt like the novel was a superb slice of English life in the early 1900s, one that accurately and effectively conveys the turmoil and concerns of the day.  I have always felt that one of the best things about Forster is how forward-thinking he was, and that is apparent in this novel as well.  He easily slices through the superficial and lays his characters and their issues bare.  I like that there are no easy heroes or villains in Howards End – characters who initially start of as appealing, reveal less valorous elements of their personalities, while those that start off as fairly repellant are capable of growth in Forster’s eyes. I can’t say that the book was entirely smooth sailing, however.  Around halfway through I did hit a bit of a wall where I found myself dragged down by the writing, the plotting, just about everything.  I wanted it to be over.  This always happens to me when I read Forster.  I don’t know why.  I just eventually run out of steam.  I think part of it is that Forster is perhaps not an author your read when you’re ravenous for books.  He’s an author that requires time, thought, and some effort, so when you’re in a mood where you’d like to rip through every book in sight, that may mean you’re not in the right frame of mind with the necessary patience for Forster.  BUT, I stuck with it, reined myself in, and broke through the wall. I found that switching to reading on my ipod was really helpful, actually, because it forced me to only read tiny sections at a time, which meant my mind couldn’t wander off into the land of “Books I Haven’t Read, But Would Like To”. Of course I’m glad I did persevere, because the last quarter of the book is fantastic and actually pretty shocking.  Forgive me for the turn of phrase, but I admired how “balls out” Forster goes in that last portion of the book, and it made me forgive the sort of sagging middle. Howards End gave me a newfound respect and appreciation for Forster, but I must also say that I now feel completely satisfied to leave him.  I feel like for me, Howards End is as good as it will get in terms of my relationship with Forster, and I’d like to leave it at that.  I am sure I will re-read it one day, but I’m happy to leave A Passage to India, and Where Angels Fear to Tread, etc., to the rest of you.  I think that if you’re going to read one Forster, this should be it. Rating: 4 out of 5

22 Comments

  1. 05/06/2010

    I was just saying earlier today on Twitter that I need to try something else by Forster. I’ve only read A Passage to India, which was dry and tedious to me, and I’ve heard he’s so good. I really want to read this one, A Room with a View, and Maurice. I just can’t decide which one to try next…

  2. 05/06/2010

    I’ll take your word for it and read this one instead of A Room With a View first.

  3. 05/06/2010

    We just watched the movie last weekend, and it had a great cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, etc. We enjoyed it although it was clearly truncated; I had to go read online to find out about some missing connections. But we also found that when Emma Thompson was on the screen, she was so radiant and engaging that she sort of made the whole movie. The characters of Helen and Leonard do not come off well in the movie. (Helen = naive, annoying; Leonard = Loser) Overall it was good – having seen some excerpts of the prose, I ‘m glad I did the movie version instead!

  4. 05/06/2010

    Oh, I love this book to pieces. It’s on my to reread soon list, as a matter of fact! And I did like this a lot more than the other Forsters I’ve read (A Passage to India and A Room with a View), but I’ve liked them all well enough to want more. (When Angels Fear to Tread will most likely be my next, as it’s the one I own.)

  5. 05/06/2010

    I think I’ll read this one and pass on his other workds. Thanks for the heads up! I know what you mean about losing steam midway through and then having to push yourself forward to finish off the book – ugh! Congrats to reading Howards End!

  6. 05/06/2010

    If you want something faster moving, you should try Where Angels Fear to Tread…there is no sag in that book at all

  7. 05/07/2010

    I know Nymeth (or was it Eva?) recently read some Forster and said he was just awesome. You’ve intrigued me! I need to give it a try.

  8. 05/07/2010

    I have book that has is basically a collection of Forster’s work. As a matter of fact, I think it has every book that you mentioned in this review in it! I have not read it yet, and I think it’s because I have a sneaking suspicion that his writing can be dry at times. I know that every time I see a review of one of his books, there is just so much praise lavished on it, but something just keeps holding me back. That being said, I think that this is the only work by Forster that I know more than a little about, and the plot does sound very interesting to me, so I believe that this is the place where I will start. I am glad that you ultimately liked the book, but the fact that you hit a little bit of a wall in the middle sort of makes me a little nervous, as that is what I fear will happen when I try Forster!

  9. 05/07/2010

    @ Amanda: I haven’t read Maurice, but I thought this was superior to Room in every possible way. So you know what I’d urge you to try…
     
    @ Kathleen: Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!
     
    @ rhapsody: I’m sure I’ll watch the movie now that I’ve read the book… I still have Room on our Netflix queue… but will I make it through? 😉
     
    @ Teresa: In my mind this was heads above Room, but there were still times I struggled with it. I think Forster and I will never be BFF, but I’m really glad I read this one.

  10. 05/07/2010

    @ Nadia: I think if you read this and absolutely LOVE it, then maybe you’d be well served by reading his other stuff too. But I say, newbies should start here and see how they fare.
     
    @ Nishita: Thanks for the tip! Maybe in a few years’ time I’ll be in the mood for more Forster… 😉
     
    @ Rebecca: It was Nymeth! She loves him in a way that I don’t, but I think you’d probably like him a good deal!
     
    @ zibilee: I think part of why I hit the wall is because I’ve been a crazy reader of late, and there’s something about Forster that demands a more leisurely pace. Also, Howards End is 400 pages, and that’s a bit longer than the books I tend to read… so I’m sure part of the problem was just general impatience on my part!

  11. taryn
    05/07/2010

    Really, no more Forster for you?? How shocking 🙂
    Why don’t you try netflixing HowardsEnd and see if you can fall asleep to that too!

    taryn

  12. 05/09/2010

    @ taryn: I do have Howards End on the queue, so perhaps when I’m having one of my insomniac nights I should give it a go and see what happens… 🙂

  13. 05/09/2010

    I always thinks Forster feels like he bears this patriotic obligation to inquire into the state of the country in this novel. I was very into this novel, although there were some slow-going moments.

  14. 05/09/2010

    Darn, my book group has picked A Room with a View! I think I read it many years ago but the fact it doesn’t stick in my memory doesn’t bode well. Let’s hope it blows the wind up my skirt (love that phrase!)

  15. 05/10/2010

    A friend of mine saw the spreadsheet I made for my reading schedule (long story–the gist is, I’m neurotic, I have too many books unread). I’d put Zadie Smith’s On Beauty in for June. Said friend informed me that it was an hommage to this book of Forster.

    Augh. In short, haha, I’ll be reading this one in a couple of weeks. Thanks for warning me about the lag in the middle. 🙂

  16. 05/10/2010

    @ Matt: Yes, I think you’re right about Forster’s insight into his own country. I actually think his way of looking at class and society is quite brilliant!
     
    @ Nicola: Well, I wouldn’t be too worried, since most people do seem to like Room With A View… I’m likely in the minority! But I will say that I think you’d like Howards End a good deal, so even if Room With a View turns out less than wonderful for you, you might try that one!
     
    @ Sasha: Yes, I knew that On Beauty was an homage of sorts to Howards End, so I decided I should read this first if I ever want to read On Beauty! That said, I started reading the beginning of OB, and I was really turned off by it. I think it was too close in time to this book, and so the comparisons were too jarring (and honestly, unfavorable for Smith), so I don’t know that I’ll ever read it. I think I might just stick to White Teeth! 😉

  17. 05/11/2010

    I promise to diligently read all the rest of Forster for you 😉 Seriously now, I’m glad you enjoyed this even if you’re not about to join the Forster fan club.

  18. 05/12/2010

    @ Nymeth: Glad to hear Forster will be in good hands! 😉

  19. 05/14/2010

    So perhaps it’s wise then to place them a little apart? Then again, if reading one after the other would point to some deficiencies in one author’s part [and yeah, I’m betting on Smith, haha], then wouldn’t that be legitimate-enough judgment? Huh. [Sorry, rambled.]

  20. 05/14/2010

    @ Sasha: I do think that placing these two books further apart could be a benefit here. I seem to recall that many people who read On Beauty shortly after Howards End, wind up being kind of underwhelmed, perhaps because Howards End is really one writer’s masterpiece, whereas On Beauty probably is not.

  21. 05/15/2010

    Take what you felt for Room and what you felt for this, and mix it. That’s how I felt about A Passage to India. But then I’m still so intrigued with Room and this one. I might still read both, just to see. But yeah, I won’t keep my hopes up so very much.

  22. 05/16/2010

    @ claire: I’m really glad I read this one, but as I said, I just can’t imagine liking anything else by Forster more than I did this one, so I really felt like this was the best place for me to stop. I could see you really liking him, but for me, I always feel a bit of a struggle with his works…

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