My first obsession is with the phenomenon of the large family. Like most people in modern America, I grew up in a quiet, well-mannered household with exactly one sibling. During the early years of my childhood, it became apparent that my younger sister was destined to be the Good Child while I was the Talented-Yet-Slightly-Disturbed Kid.
I rapidly became disenchanted with the two-sibling dynamic and ever since, I've wanted a huge family. I remember announcing to my grandmother at the age of eight that I planned to adopt four children. The exact number as well as my opinions on "birth-vs. - adoption" have varied slightly over the years, but my inclination still leans decidedly towards "more than three." I figure it eases up on the "good-child/bad-child" dynamic. With bunch of kids, you probably get a couple of criminals and everybody else gets to be good at something.
In addition to indulging my love for big families (Forsyte Saga spans three generations of a sprawling, upper-middle-class Victorian clan) the book also gave me a chance to disappear once again into the tightly-corseted era of Victorian England. I can't explain my fascination with the Victorian world or my love for books written during or about that period. I just like them. Something about the manners and subtext of that society just appeals to me.
I'd already seen the Masterpiece Theater mini-series adaptation of the story (originally published as a series of novels and a couple of interludes by John Galsworthy during the Jazz Age) so I already had a certain affection for the characters and their struggles with (or against) the search for true and everlasting love.
Let's just say that the book didn't disappoint. If anything, I liked it better than the TV version. Though intimidating because of its length, the book is fun, well-written and a surprisingly quick read. The novel's tongue-in-cheek style actually provides quite a few laughs, many more than I expected from a book of this period.
Forsyte Saga is essentially a modern-day soap opera in paperback form. Take, for example, the journey of Irene Heron, one of the three main characters. She begins the series as the dutiful-but-tortured wife of Soames Forsyte and best friend of June Forsyte. She later takes up with June Forsyte's fiancee, Phil Boisinney, and nearly runs off with him before Phil is killed under mysterious circumstances. After Phil's death, Irene leaves Soames for good. Years go by, until Irene eventually falls in love with (and later marries) June's father, Jolyon Forsyte.
There's enough drama and heartbreak in Irene's story alone to fill any good three-to-four-hundred page tome, but Galsworthy's epic chronicles three full generations of the family and describes each character's search for love and romantic pitfalls in detail.
While the three main characters are, ostensibly, Irene Heron, Soames Forsyte, and Jolyon Forsyte, the broad focus of the book requires the story to dance nimbly between between younger and older characters and different branches of the family tree. Towards the middle of the book, for example, Soames's long-suffering sister Winifred becomes a major player as the author describes in detail her troubled marriage to the infamous gambler and malcontent Montague Dartie.
For a family that prides themselves on restraint (reserving shows affection solely for material things), the Forsytes are remarkably well-inclined towards tortured love affairs and emotional disasters. Even Soames, the epitome of the family's reserve, is capable of love and it's his passionate obsession with Irene that makes their failed union all the more heartbreaking.
In addition to a good yarn about a family, The Forsyte Saga is also a superb depiction of Victorian England. The Forsyte family spans the length and breadth of the Victorian period (Queen Victoria, still in the early years of her reign at the beginning of the book, dies just as the third-and-fourth Forsyte generations come of age.) The book was written early on in the twentieth century and Galsworthy's commentary on some of the older Forsytes reflects a certain bias against traditional Victorian values common during that time. Nonetheless, Galsworthy has a keen eye for the changes of the era, be they political, social, or economic in nature. He chronicles the early-Victorian concept of New Money, the gradual emancipation of women, and the invention of the automobile.
As the study of an era, I found the book remarkably insightful, accurate and engaging.
But it's ultimately the characters, not their world, that truly make the story come alive. Galsworthy deserves major props for making his characters neither completely good nor completely evil. In fact, the lines between the two are so blurred that the book becomes much deeper than an ordinary soap opera and actually reminded more of an HBO series like The Sopranos or The Wire. Galsworthy writes with such skill that we even feel pity for the despicable Soames Forsyte (largely depicted as the story's villain) at the end and want him to find happiness.
It's the blurring of good an evil, a keen understanding of a time and place, and an unmistakable affection for his characters (whatever their flaws) that makes Galsworthy's epic a smashing success. A Victorian novel with a distinctly modern flavor, The Forsyte Saga is sure to keep readers awake and turning pages well into the wee hours.