Few books look at the decline of old ways of life the way "The Magnificent Ambersons" does. Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer-winning novel is a sharp, brilliant, sometimes mocking look at the way that old money crumbled away when the industrial revolution hit, and the way those Gilded Age millionaires ended up. It's undeniably Tarkington's best novel.
Georgie Minafer is the only heir and scion of the wealthy Amberson family, and unsurprisingly he's an insufferable brat. He doesn't improve as he grows up, believing that "there's a few people whose birth and position... puts them at the top" -- and his snottiness doesn't improve when he encounters and falls in love with an inventor's daughter, whose father was once smitten with his mother.
But soon the Amberson fortunes start to change -- family deaths, loss of money, and the encroaching city that is swallowing up their estate. George continues to believe that he is superior to others, but this belief is increasingly strained as "the magnificent Ambersons" lose the last of their property. And George's only salvation may be the man he once called "riffraff."
"The Magnificent Ambersons" seems at first to be a tombstone to the Gilded Age's beauty and glamour. Then you realize that George is a pain in the butt, not a noble figure, and that Tarkington had little affection for that bygone age -- the entire thing is an ironic look at how the "old money" refused to change their ways, and got swamped for it. Tarkington takes aim at rrogance, complacency, idleness and other flaws.
And Tarkington had a rare gift for irony. His writing seems a bit stuffy at first, with pages of details on clothes and parties; but as the Amberson fortunes fall, his prose becomes faster and more incisive. And the differences between idle "old money" and the poeple who "do" things becomes more pronounced, as well as the encroachment of machines and urban life into a once-elegant place. For example, the apartment buildings where the Amberson front lawn was.
It's pretty obvious from the start that while this is George's story, he's not the hero. He's arrogant, pompous, and genuinely believes that he is next to royalty just because his grandfather is rich. Only in the last chapters does he finally realize that he's no better than anyone else -- when even the people who once loathed him no longer even remember him.
The other Ambersons are humbler but no more useful. Aunt Fanny and Uncle George seem almost bewildered by their gradual downslide. And as a contrast to the formerly moneyed family, Tarkington provides readers with the car manufacturer Eugene Morgan -- George's opposite in every way -- and his sprightly, intelligent daughter.
Even the title of "The Magnificent Ambersons" is ironic, and it suits this quietly biting novel about how the world changed at the start of the twentieth century. The best book Tarkington ever wrote.
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