Review: The Way We Live Now

Anthony Trollope (1875)

I can’t remember the last time I read a book filled with so many unlikable characters that I enjoyed so completely. Trollope’s social critique centers on an interconnected group of Londoners who strive, each in their own way, to achieve fabulous wealth as quickly and effortlessly as possible. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The book opens with Lady Carbury, an aspiring author who crafts historical novels chock full of inaccuracies and uses her literary connections to secure fabricated rave reviews. Her son Felix is a worthless cad who spends his mother and sister nearly into ruin, whiling his time away at the club playing poker with a stack of IOUs. Lady Carbury’s fondest wish is to see Felix wed to Marie Melmotte, a love-struck girl rumored to be worth millions, but Felix is too lazy to seal the deal, preferring to drink with the boys and gad about with the headstrong country girl Ruby Ruggles. Ruby has thrown over the miller she was promised to marry on the hope that Sir Felix will raise her social standing through marriage.

Central to the entire work is Augustus Melmotte, a deceitful businessman with a murky background; from the moment this recent immigrant appears on the scene he dazzles society with his reputed wealth and awesome business acumen. His latest endeavor, the formation of a rail line from Las Vegas to Vera Cruz, is sure to make millions and everyone wants a piece of the action.

Not content with his latest smoke and mirrors financial scheme, Melmotte sets his sights on a lofty prize, a seat in Parliament. So begins this ruthless man’s undoing—unchecked power and ego, tainted by the whiff of scandal (sound familiar?) Ultimately Melmotte finds his greatest foe in the most unlikely place.

Like a 19th-century version of Dynasty with a good dose of humor thrown in, I found The Way We Live Now a surprisingly quick and entertaining read, brimming with annoying, shallow and downright reprehensible characters, enjoyable all, thanks to Trollope’s sharp writing and clever wit.

While not everyone in my book group liked TWWLN as much as I, there was plenty to discuss during our annual tea and literature outing (at the Peninsula Hotel), not least of which were the contemporary themes of corruption, money for nothing, entitlement, and greed. TWWLN is a great example of timeless literature and the first of many Trollope novels now on my “must read” list.

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