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Customer Review

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A deep and disturbing novel, 2 Nov. 2011
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This review is from: Our Mutual Friend (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
This last year I have been engaged in reading all of Dickens' novels as he wrote them, so 'Our mutual friend' should have been the last to read but for some reason or other I skipped A Tale of Two Cities (Oxford World's Classics) along the way. But apart from that it has been a glorious experience and a journey fully worth taking. All of his novels share certain characteristics but also have their own special appeal, and 'Our mutual friend' is no exception.

In fact, I found this novel one of the most disturbing of them all. The plot itself is fairly straightforward: John Harmon has been living abroad for years separated from his miserly father, but now that this father has died John Harmon travels to London to find that even from beyond the grave his father continues to taunt him: in order to inherit his father's vast fortune, John must marry a particular girl (Bella Wilfer). If he does not, he inherits nothing. However, by a freak accident a murdered man is mistaken for John Harmon which allows John to assume another name and personality and observe Bella Wilfer without her knowing who he is: is she worth having? And what if she isn't? Now that in itself is surely a disturbing conundrum, and not just to John Harmon. What of Bella Wilfer? Should she not feel that this will turns her into a sort of product to be bought and sold? If she accepts John Harmon, won't people think she took him for the money? And if she refuses him, will not many consider her a silly girl? Is it still possible to come to an honest decision about a suitor, knowing that you'll be not only marrying him but also his money?

To my mind Dickens explores this theme of 'deceptive appearances' in a masterly way. Many of the other characters in the book also turn out to be not what (or how) they appear at first sight or are altered beyond recognition before the novel is out: members of 'Society' turn out to be bankrupt frauds, the most sarcastic lawyer falls desperately in love with a factory girl, a gentle old man turns into a greedy miser while the proverbial money-grasping Jew is something completely different, and at times it seems there are more gentlemen amongst the poor than in the upper classes.

Which brings me to a second theme: as in many of Dickens' novels, there is also a huge element of social inquiry and criticism. Contrary to what most members of 'Society' in the novel would claim, it seems that having a lot of money is not a prerequisite to be a gentleman or a lady. On the contrary, time and again Dickens shows how money can corrupt, and how those without often (but not always, that would be going too far even for Dickens) have a true morality while the rich do not. This is not to say that all is gloom in 'Our mutual friend'. Indeed, I found it to be one of the funniest novels he wrote, abounding with hilarious characters and laugh-out-loud scenes.

Although his novels are steeped in 'realism' (in the sense that the whole setting and period is brought magnificently to life) I can well imagine that some may think Dickens utterly unrealistic. True enough, the 'good guy' usually 'gets the girl' in his novels (and the good girl also gets her guy). Whether that is a good thing (at the very least it's a comforting thought that things may turn out right in the end) or a bad thing (after all, in real life none of us are born with a guaranteed happy ending certificate) I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that I immensely enjoyed each and every one of his novels, and 'Our mutual friend' is definitely no exception!
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