Year of First Publication: 1944
Year of Publication for This Edition: 2003
Number of Pages: 314
Publisher: Vintage International
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The man I am writing about is not famous. It may be that he never will be. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. … But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature. [pg. 3-4]
At the center of this story is a young man named Larry Darrell. Following his service as an airman in the First World War, he returns to his old life as the adopted son of a prosperous Chicago doctor and the fiancé of Isabel Bradley, his childhood friend and one of the most eligible young ladies in the city. American industry is booming and Larry’s friends, particularly Isabel, can’t wait for him to take his place in it. Henry Maturin, a successful stock broker, has even arranged a well-paying job for him in his firm. But Larry isn’t so interested in going to work at the moment. The things he saw and did during the war have left him plagued by questions about life, death, and the universe itself. In order to answer these questions, he plans to lead a life of study and contemplation, to the horror of Isabel and her family, for whom money and status predominate over virtually everything else. After ending his engagement, Larry begins a quest for truth that takes him across the globe and back.
Maugham begins this novel telling us that all of the events and people in it are real, just with the names changed and the dialogue fictionalized. To what extent this is true I do not know, although Maugham does write himself into the cast as the first person narrator through whose eyes we view the entire story. Certain points of the story, and especially of Larry’s life, apparently were drawn from Maugham’s own life as well, such as Larry’s stay in India to seek enlightenment at the feet of the swamis.
The Trouble with Larry
There’s a lot to love about Larry: his generosity, his wit, his love of wisdom. Most of all, I love his refusal to compromise his convictions. I love that he won’t allow himself to be forced into the vain and vapid life that Isabel and others urge him to pursue. That’s what drew me to this book in the first place: the young protagonist who rejects the world’s materialism in exchange for truth which can’t be bought or sold. There’s just one thing that really bothers me about Larry: his story seems too idealized.
For one thing, barring his arguments with Isabel early in the book, Larry encounters almost no external resistance on the path he’s chosen. He has plenty of money stashed in the bank, so he’s not pursuing education under the threat of poverty and hunger, and he has no friends or family to whom he is beholden, so he’s free to spend ten years doing basically whatever he wants. This makes for a nice story, but not an exceptionally powerful or compelling one. I think it would have given Larry’s story more interest if he had had to struggle just a bit more on his “path to salvation.”
Besides that, Maugham takes care to stress throughout the story, in a number of ways, how unlike the rest of the world Larry is. His aloofness, his secrecy, his habit of packing up and leaving with little or no warning—they all serve to tell the reader over and over that Larry is special and not like the dull, greedy, unoriginal people around him. The character of Maugham too is pretty convinced that Larry is a saint who’s going to change the world one day, and he doesn’t mind saying so. All in all, Larry sounds just a little too good to be true. I probably would have enjoyed this book more if he had been treated more like a flesh-and-blood being instead of some kind of mythical creature.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy this book, though. In addition to Maugham’s beautiful prose, the rest of his characters are intriguing in their own ways. Isabel, for instance, turns out to be a kind of villain, but one you can still feel for. While Larry is seeking his fulfillment in study and spiritual experience, all Isabel asks is nice clothes and a fashionable home. It becomes apparent almost immediately that she and Larry will never see eye to eye, but that doesn’t mean that she stops loving him, even after she marries Henry Maturin’s son Gray. Eventually, her passion for Larry and her despair at not being with him begin to lead her down a dark road.
Isabel’s uncle Elliot Templeton regularly steals the show as well. Elliot, through whom Maugham meets Isabel, Larry, and the rest of the cast, made his fortune selling art and dedicates his life to being one of the smart set, going to all the right parties, learning and spreading the best gossip, etc. He’s ridiculous enough to be funny, but his vanity masks a very generous and caring spirit.
That’s all for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed my nitpicky thoughts on this novel. Let me know in the comments if you’ve read it, what you thought, and where I went wrong in my critique.