Although the title Tono Bungay is the name of a fictitious and extremely profitable tonic, this novel is in fact the gripping autobiography of George Ponderevo, the nephew of Tono Bungay's inventor. We follow George from his humble beginnings through his doubting involvement in the marketing of a practically useless tonic medicine (actually based on Coca Cola) to his development of flying machines and modern warships.
George's doubts flow from his socialism (Wells himself was a Fabian) and his warm sense of humanity. Through the adventures of one of the most engaging characters in fiction, we are presented with a critical view of free-market Capital and the lengths it will go to seduce and persuade people into parting with their cash for the least return. Although published in Edwardian England (1909) its relevance and contemporary reference to our world today is startling: in a fast-moving narrative (blink and you miss it - don't be tempted to skip the odd paragraph) we find cash for honours, the rapid but fragile rise of the unprincipled entrepreneur, a subtle but significant allusion to drug addiction, exploitation of Africa...
The narrator himself is convivial company, and his observations and life-events kept grounded by his Aunt Susan who, although she too becomes vastly rich thanks to the financial success of her husband's business, remains down to earth throughout.
In short, this novel succeeds in giving an examination of Capitalism and the society it produces and feeds off, while being at all times an engaging account of warm, human characters.
My only reservations are about the notes to this Penguin edition. To be fair to Penguin, they head the notes with a statement that "...the notes explain many allusions for which British readers need no explanation". In other words, this is a 'one size fits all' edition for readers on both sides of the Atlantic. They were produced by an American Academic. Not only does this oxymoron patronise us with explanations of such obscure and confusing terms as 'gasworks' and 'William Morris' but he also informs us (note 19 to Book 3, Ch. 3) that Tristan & Isolde was the first of Wagner's operas, which it most certainly was not - Wagner had been writing operas for a good 25 years by the time he came to write Tristan. This seems to be part of a trend in current Penguins. For example, the notes to their edition of the Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano appear to have been similarly prepared for a readership of ill-educated Americans. Read the novel and ignore the notes!