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3.7 out of 5 stars56
3.7 out of 5 stars
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I read this book for the first time earlier this year in a paperback version, but when I saw this free kindle edition on here whilst browsing I just had to get it, and read it all over again. If you have never read this before then you are missing a treat; you may have heard that this is a 'problem novel', but that doesn't mean it is too hard to read or understand, the problem in this case is to do with the veracity of the narrator.

Two couples, an American pair, and an English pair meet abroad for about a month every year. It transpires that one from each couple have been having a clandestine affair. If this story had been told in correct chronological order then it is doubtful that it would grab your attention so much. This particular tale is told out of kilter, so you never know the veracity of the narrator, what he really knew or suspected, and what he was in the dark about.

Fascinating and compelling this story really pulls you in, and I hope that if you decide to download it you will love it as much as I do.
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Here's a book whose famous opening sentence ("This is the saddest story I have ever heard") draws the unwitting reader across the threshold into a baffling world of deception, contradiction, ignorance and horror. In fact - as has been pointed out by Julian Barnes in his essay on Ford in his latest collection - by the time the reader reaches the end of that simple phrase, the deception has already started. As becomes clear in the first few pages, the narrator didn't "hear" the story at all - he was a participant (albeit a mostly ignorant one) in it. This tiny clue (Barnes describes it as a "creak under the [reader's] foot") alerts us to the unreliability of the narrator, as he starts to tell the story of the Ashburnhams, an English couple which he and his wife met at a German spa town in the 1900's. Or rather, he doesn't start. As if being unreliable wasn't enough, he relates his tale in a nonlinear fashion: jumping in at the middle, relaying flashbacks out of sequence, leaving gaps in his story that the reader is supposed to fill in, even as the full realization of what happened to those two couples gradually emerges. It's a story which calls for an attentive reader, but there are many rewards as you try to unpick the narrator's contradictions - e.g.

"[I]t made her more hateful to him - and more worthy of respect"

"And she looked at him with her straight eyes of an unflinching cruelty and she said: 'I am ready to belong to you - to save your life.'"

"I think that it would have been better in the eyes of God if they had all attempted to gouge out each other's eyes with carving knives. But they were 'good people'."

He throws these up as he apparently tries to recall the details of the story (and occasionally expresses his frustrations in asides to the reader: "I have been casting back again; but I cannot help it. It is so difficult to keep all these people going.") In spite of these protests of his limitations, the result is a immensely subtle and finely-textured story which - when you look back on its uneven path - steadily and inexorably builds to a bloody climax which shows the painful ends of characters who are "drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heart-aches, agony of the mind and death".

[I read this story as a (freely available) download on my iPhone; previously, I've only used that medium for shorter pieces, but found that it was particularly well-suited to this novel because of the built-in ability to quickly search back through the text, highlight passages of interest (something I never do in a physical book) and look up definitions for unfamiliar words. I think these features made unpicking the puzzle of this story easier to do, and improved my understanding and appreciation of the author's work.]
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 1 October 2013
I found this really hard to get into: read the first 50 pages twice-over and just couldn't get on with it. Then took a deep breath, sat in a quiet room, and recommenced it, reading most in one go. And it really is quite a masterpiece!
Being a shortish (179 p) book, and being based around themes of marriage and adultery, you might be expecting a fairly easy read. It certainly isn't that, not least because the narrator (the wronged husband) doesn't start at the start and work through chronologically. Little snippets come out, but your assumptions about what is meant may be incorrect...

Who is good and who is bad? Again, the narrator's conclusions may surprise you. The characters are deeply layered, meriting a second read through. Challenging - but glad I pursued it!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 October 2014
"This is the saddest story I have ever heard" is a somewhat off-putting opening sentence. It is hard to feel very sorry for snobbish, convention-bound people who feel hard up even when holding large estates, employing servants and swanning round foreign hotels, with the lack of any occupation to give them a sense of proportion.

At first, I was even more deterred by the style, the mannered, at times almost querulous tone which I would have expected from a Victorian spinster aunt, rather than from a character I could never quite believe was an American male. Just when I was wishing I did not need to read this for a book group, I was struck by the description of the "good soldier" Ashburnham's luggage: "the profusion of his cases, all of pigskin and stamped with his initials...It must have needed a whole herd of Gaderene swine to make up his outfit". Even if this novel is not intended to be a farce (which would have saved it for me), it surely includes some sharp notes of mocking parody.

First published in 1915, this tale of two "perfect" couples whose friendship over more than a decade masks a web of deception, hypocrisy and guilt, since they are unable to keep to the moral and religious conventions to which they feel bound, has been described as "the finest French novel in the English language" and is highly regarded by some as "stylistically perfect". I accept that it is an early example of "stream of consciousness" - of the well-punctuated variety - and what has been called "literary impressionism", as the author plays games with us through his distinctly unreliable first person narrator. In the midst of his self-confessed ramblings, the American provides us with some original, often vicious insights, belying his claimed lack of observation bordering on stupidity over what is really going on under his nose - although is he really as passive in the affair as he makes out? He shifts back and forth in time, revisiting scenes to peel off yet more layers to reveal that each incident was not quite as he implied or stated earlier, or to show how it might appear differently to the various characters concerned. Although he does this quite skilfully, providing a few unexpected shocks on the way, there is a good deal of repetition of details. A fairly thin story seems overlong, and the heavy emphasis on telling the reader at great length what to think - even if this gets contradicted at times - is less satisfying than the style we have come to prefer - showing events for us to draw differing conclusions.

Perhaps this is worth reading as an early twentieth century classic, but I cannot say I really enjoyed it. Arnold Bennet, who lived at the same time as Ford Madox Ford, creates for me a much more real past peopled with more convincing complex characters over whom it is easier to feel moved.
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on 20 May 2013
This is certainly one of the best novels I have read, possibly the very best. It draws the reader in to to a story of quiet intensity, beautifully explored, infinitely sad.
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on 3 October 2012
Ford Madox Ford originally intended to call this beautiful but tragic novella "The Saddest Story", based upon the opening sentence, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard"> His publisher objected, suggesting that such a title would have a disastrous impact upon sales. Ford was not convinced, responding angrily that the publisher should do whatever he thought fit, adding that one might as well just call it "The Good Soldier".
"The Saddest Story" might have spelt disaster on the booksellers' shelves but it would certainly have satisfied those who lean towards the "It does what it says on the tin" approach to titles. It is an immensely sad story - the tale of two self-destructive couple touring Europe in the early years of the twentieth century.
However, it is also a beautifully written story, to such an extent that one suffers all the pain of the narrator as he recounts his tragic story.
Ford was a master of literary criticism and brought all his stylistic knowledge to bear here giving a series of different literary devices (flashback, impressionism, florid conjecture). It is a short book but infinitely rewarding .. yet also heartbreaking.
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on 25 July 2014
Elegantly written, atmospheric, engaging: but you can't help feeling this quintet of people would be better off if they had something to do. Laundry, anything. The basic idea seems to be that men would potter around quite happily if only women weren't so dammed psychotic. As the pottering includes drawing a helpless ingenue (not quite a minor) into the sexual unfun and games, I was quite relieved when it stopped
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on 22 June 2015
Well it's not an all action novel and hardly a page turner but it will appeal to readers who appreciate detailed character analysis and an accurate depiction of the times in which the story is set. The plot involves four main characters - two married couples including the author himself. We are told at an early stage that two die tragically but then have to read through how their complex lives unravel to learn the details of their deaths. The eponymous Edward Ashburnham is a bibulous philanderer married to Leonora, a woman of Catholic upbringing, who spends much of the novel fighting a losing battle to save him from himself, public embarrassment and ignominy. The only character to emerge apparently psychologically and emotionally unscathed is the author himself. Although the book has its fair share of tragedy it isn't all doom and gloom, the author making many a humorous jibe at the morals and hypocrisy of early twentieth century. European society
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on 4 May 2014
This was on my reading list for university in an English Literature course so reading them under duress can feel like a chore but I honestly loved this book. Plenty of material for academic study like the narrative strategy and the form of the book, as well as a really good, enjoyable story. For me it was the narrative strategy that makes the book stand out, told from the present talking about the past - without the influence of perspective. Never encountered a book that approaches the past in this way. It is almost like a detective story but John Dowell (the narrator) is no detective! Written in any other way would turn the novel into millions like it bt Ford Madox Ford presents (for me) a unique tale.
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on 12 October 2012
There are few things in life to equal the great classics of literature and I am spending my retirement re-reading those I have encountered only once and looking at new possibilities. The reputation of Ford Maddox Ford is not quite of classic status yet he has always had strong advocates and these seem to have increased in number and intensity over the years, so I thought I should give this a go. At the start I felt very much "Hats off - a genius": interesting style, quirky narrative point of view, themes of great potential, engagingly "modern" structure, intriguing plot, living characters - surely a classic. But as I read on I felt I was increasingly engaged in a limited domestic drama with little interest beyond itself - rather as if Macbeth were just about an odd couple who go about some nasty murders or King Lear about a dysfunctional family with a troublesome aged parent. By the end I did not see the point of engaging with these essentially trivial lives in such detail, the "unreliable narrator" stance was a cheat (since it was not in ironic counterpoint with anything - in contrast to The Great Gatsby which it reminded me of at the start)and the random structure fell apart. We are left with a superb style and I have generally felt that the how of writing is more important than the what (as in, arguably, Jane Austen) but in this case I felt that some things are barely worth saying however well said. At the same time, like all classics, the book has "got into me" and is unlikely to go away. I may well have quite a different view of it as the years go by - another characteristic of the true classic!
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