First published in 1915, the author in fact wished the title to be The Saddest Story, and when his publisher objected, suggested The Good Soldier as a joke and was horrified when it was taken up. The plot revolves around two couples, one American and one English, both ill-matched and miserable, and how they head towards destruction, leaving two of them dead and others in ruins along the way. It's a very difficult, uncomfortable read, with 234 "notes" at the end. As none of the characters are sympathetic or likeable, and the book is hard to plough through, I didn't enjoy it although the last quarter had rather more in the way of plot revelations, as much is hidden or only hinted at to start with. It's probably "good literature" but not an easy read. And the "Saddest Story"? It is according to Ford the fact that men's love for women passes, "as the shadows pass across sundials".
This is a real page-turner with great storytelling and wonderful writing. It's an apparently simple story of a cuckolded husband but Maddox Ford tells and retells the same events from the point of view of each participant so that the reader's understandings and sympathies are constantly shifting as he begins to comprehend the complexities and motivations of those involved. Characters we thought we liked at the start become obnoxious and those we loathed are redeemed. It's clever not only because the ground constantly shifts under the reader's feet but also by the way the story is told - getting one of the characters to explain all the others. This has two effects, first, by avoiding the God narrator it legitimizes the fact that the reader doesn't understand everything at once, and secondly it makes the whole affair much more intimate and personal because these events are happening to the narrator who is our friend.
The story concerns two upper middle class couples who meet at a German spa at the turn of the 19th century and become good friends over many years. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that beneath their simple outings and picnics, sexual and emotional plate tectonics are at work. More and more is slowly revealed of what has been going on and the final pages are tragic and grim.
Much is made in literary circles of the fact that the narrator is unreliable and frequently contradicts himself or is plain wrong. This is a very neat device that covers up the fact that somehow the narrator has gotten to understand what everyone else in the story was thinking or feeling. His unreliability is really chaff to cover up this unlikely situation. Nonetheless it is well done and makes the tone and structure of the book enjoyable and unusual. In particular the narrator constantly time shifts the story backwards and forwards and fails to tell the reader some facts about events until later so that they appear mysterious and only later can be pieced together. If you enjoy detective fiction you should enjoy this.
At heart this is a desperate story of a group of people who set off in life and make a mess of it. Some are naïve, some manipulative, some loving, some hard-nosed, some living a full life and some just passing through. Which is which and who is whom the reader cannot understand until the end and the slow reveal is delightful, sad and horrific.
I had a peculiar reaction on completing this novel. Its construction, observation, and turns of phrase were so perfect I agreed with those who acclaimed it as a masterpiece. On the other hand I did not greatly enjoy reading it.
The novel comprises the reflections of a middle aged man on the tragedy of love and death that overtook his life and the lives of those closest to him. Because the story is revealed through his reflections, our picture of what occurred is slowly pieced together from hints and little details dotted throughout time. It is a powerful technique and beautifully executed. But the result is more like an essay than a novel. There is no narrative continuity and that is why I don't at all share the view of one reviewer that it is a page turner.
The pleasure of reading it is further diminished by the characters themselves, most of whom I felt sorry for but did not like. They are mostly selfish, lazy, complacent, obsessed with themselves and their nasty little games, and thoroughly spoilt. Even those outside the rich classes are hardly likeable. As one reviewer said, the narrator is sympathetic but I found him so spineless, even for him my sympathy was limited. In fact he was so spineless as to stretch my credulity.