Monday, July 16, 2012

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

“It was tediousness made tangible . . .”
Carol Milford graduates from a small St. Paul college with idealistic notions of taking some backward prairie town and transforming it into a cultured utopia of the plains. When she marries small-town doctor Will Kennicott, she optimistically sees a chance to put her ideas into practice. After arriving in his hometown of Gopher Prairie, however, her ideas for reform fall on deaf ears, and she finds herself not the town’s savior, but rather its prisoner.

Having grown up in a small town in Wisconsin, and lived in larger cities, I can see both the pros and cons of small-town life. Sinclair Lewis’s portrait, however, is relentlessly one-sided and bleak. Gopher Prairie is so abysmal, and its denizens so unsympathetic, that it almost defies believability. Lewis doesn’t treat his protagonist any kinder, either. We are privy to Carrie’s every shallow thought, every flighty notion, every petty grievance, to the point where there’s not much left in her to root for.

The title of this review is a quote from the book that encapsulates much of its plot. Chapters and chapters go by detailing Carol’s dismal existence. I kept waiting and waiting for something—anything—to happen. Will she cheat on her husband? Will she run away? Will she kill herself? Finally around chapter 30 things start happening, but rather than satisfy me they just made me cringe. The book redeems itself a little in the last few chapters, adopting a more positive tone and injecting a dash of feminism, but it was a little too little and a little too late.

One thing’s for certain, Lewis is an incredible wordsmith. His prose is elegant and effortless, with a beautiful poetic quality about it even when he’s being sarcastic, ironic, or just plain depressing. With a simple turn of phrase he can describe a detailed scene or a complex human emotion that would take lesser authors whole pages to relate. I’m sure at the time it was written, this was a groundbreaking novel, and years ahead of its time in its feminism and liberalism. I admired this book more than I enjoyed it. I am looking forward to reading more of Lewis’s work, but I’ll probably never read Main Street again.

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