Sunday, June 3, 2007

Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham
$5.95 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 055321392X
A timeless classic, and a bit of a challenge if you're up to it. It's a little long at 712 pages, but like climbing Mount Everest, it's worth the effort. Published in 1915 and thought to be heavily autobiographical, Of Human Bondage is a story of growing up and becoming a man, in which we see people at their worst and at their absolute best. There's poverty, betrayal, lifelong friendship, and true romance. Especially engaging is the richness with which Maugham describes his characters, so you soon feel as if they're members of your own family.
Here's the gist of it: The story's main character is Philip Carey, whose parents die when he's very young. He's raised by his uncle, a pious English parish minister, who tries to do right by his new ward while not really interested in raising a child. As an additional setback, Philip is born with a club-foot, which sort of humiliates him through most of his childhood and early adulthood. Our story begins when Philip is a baby, and follows him until he's about thirty years old.
Growing up with a disability is always a challenge. As he gets older he tries a few different careers, and in time falls in love with a woman named Mildred, who works in a diner. She's sort of a loser, and he realizes it, but he just can't help himself. Keeps taking her back even after she repeatedly treats him like garbage and is obviously just using him. We all know what that's like.
He does some traveling, which helps keep the story moving: studies German in Heidelberg and art in Paris. He watches his foster-parents grow old, spends some time contemplating religion, gets betrayed by people he thought were his friends, and saved during his hour of need by strangers. The story progresses a lot like Catcher In the Rye, but unlike Holden Caulfield, Philip Carey is not an asshole.
Not a great choice for high school kids (most sixteen-year-olds would find it too long), check this one out if you're becoming an adult: living on your own and dealing with grown-up consequences for the first time. Philips' story is really the same as anyone's: scary, heart-breaking at times, yet rewarding in the long run. Although it's almost 100 years old, you'll see how some things never change. I loved every minute of this book while I was on vacation; as summer reading it comes highly recommended.

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