Summary: This gargantuan novel about London and the old Chancery courts is told in two interweaving narratives - the first is an all-knowing, all-seeing present-tense narrator looking down on the lives of a plethora of characters. The second is the retrospective autobiography of Esther Summerson, around whom all the novel's events are centered in some way.
There is far more in the novel than any review could hope to encompass without becoming grossly overlong. The core story is Esther's search for her identity and a place in the world. She does not know that she is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock and a man named Nemo; Esther was raised by her cold godmother and at the time of her death taken in by Jarndyce, a generous man overwhelmed by the cruelty of the world around him. At the same time he takes in Ada and Richard, two orphans who become Esther's closest friends. Through them we are exposed to London in the mid-1800s, to see the squalor and hopelessness and hypocrisy of its inhabitants.
The novel revolves around a long-running (and I mean decades upon decades, possibly a century) court case of Jarndyce verses Jarndyce, in which nearly every character of the novel is some way involved. There is also a bit of a detective story around Lady Dedlock and her former lover, different attempts to expose or cover up her secret. What is really at the heart of this novel, however, is the disunity and miscommunication that exists between all the characters. Everyone is wrapped up in their own private stories and ticks, unable to reach out and help one another or see each other or themselves properly.
Review: I will admit, I was not a big fan of this book. How much of that stems from the very pressing deadline that loomed while I was reading it, I can't really know. This was my first experience of Dickens, and while I was absolutely charmed by him for the first 150 or so pages, thing began to get repetitive after that. I know that everyone always says Dickens has too many characters and it is a trite comment but, well, Dickens has too many characters.
It is not only that he has too many characters, but it is the very narrow behaviors and traits of his characters - which do make them distinguishable - that bothered me. There is only one dimension to 90% of the people within the novel, and that one trait or phrase or action becomes so frustrating after one or two instances that reading becomes tedious.
It is a novel about people who are locked into their behaviors and can no longer adapt or have any knowledge of themselves. However, seeing them all locked into their behaviors, the reader naturally longs for something - anything! - to change within the novel, and rarely anything does. I began to have quite hysterical fantasies about Esther being a mild-mannered governess by day and ruthless ninja assassin by night, so powerful was my desire to see 90% of the characters bleed.
I do think it might be a worthwhile novel to read, but you would have to do it in installments over a long period of time, if you really wanted. It doesn't work well as a whole novel, and must have been a better serial. There are some interesting points that Dickens makes, if you squint and turn your head sideways.
Quotation: London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.