My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is a hugely sprawling, hugely cynical portrayal of Victorian aristocrats and their vacuous, money-centered morality. As with other Trollope novels, The Way We Live Now is best undertaken by serious readers and fans of Victorian literature. Both the massive length and the dark, cynical tone make it a challenge to finish. I found myself wanting to give up on it many times, but persevering was worth it in the end.
The Good: The Way We Live Now is certainly a prescient novel. It is easy enough to imagine Wall Street bankers gambling with money they don’t have at the “bear gardens” club or to substitute Bernie Madoff for Mr. Melmotte. Though dark and cynical, Trollope’s portrayal of society is just as valid now as it was more than one-hundred years ago.
The “rondo” form is also well done. The plot begins with just a few characters, expands to a whole lot of them in the middle and returns to just the few it began with in the end. This scheme shows a panoramic view of British aristocratic society without becoming decentered and letting the plot get lost.
The Bad: As I mentioned before The Way We Live Now is long and dark. Seven hundred pages of narrative about characters that are hard to like is tedious to say the least. It’s not just that it is a long book. If there were likable characters that the reader could sympathize with it would be a lot easier to swallow. Yet, none of the characters is likable. I didn’t find myself cheering for any of them.
The Way We Live Now was written for serialization. Each chapter seems to begin by repeating information the reader has already read. Thus, the narrative is repetitive.
While The Way We Live Now gives a panoramic view of aristocratic society, middle and lower class characters appear less often and are complete simpletons. Readers can look to Thomas Hardy or other contemporary writers for a rounder portrayal.
Anthony Trollope offers no path to fixing the dystopian society that appears in The Way We Live Now. It’s gloomy and cynical. This isn’t a true fault of the author, for maybe it is a realistic portrayal of the Way We Live Now…but it is gloomy, so be ready for that.
The Bottome Line The Way We Live Now is a lengthy, cynical work, prescient in it’s portrayal of the financial classes. It is a good novel, but it’s length and pessimism are not for the most general reading audiences.