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106 of 111 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 5, 2001
I think that it may be hard for the modern reader to find the time to read _Our Mutual Friend_. It's length makes it undeniably difficult to fit easily into the daily allotment of reading time. Weighing in at over 900 pages, it was originally published as a twenty-part monthly serial. There are also a number of situations and details that while very familiar to the Victorians, will be almost wholly incomprehensible to the reader of today (for instance the role of dust and dustmen and the mounds in the yard of the old house).
It's also clearly not Dickens' sunniest work. At the time of its release already, people spoke nostalgically about the more gentle nature of _David Copperfield_ or _Oliver Twist_ . While the farce that constitutes such an important element in Dickens' works is present, it's tainted with a note of bitterness that conveys a feeling of pervasive sadness throughout this great novel.
Dickens was working on this book when he was caught in the Staplehurst rail disaster and narrowly escaped death when his car was the only one of the first-class cars not to plunge from a bridge into a river bed. He was one of the people who climbed down the side to do what he could for the dead and dying. Dickens himself mentions the accident in his afterword, and at the risk of reading too much into the incident, it's hard not to read this book from the perspective of an aging man who narrowly avoids death himself. The nature of death, and the idea of escaping it by a hand's length, is one of the themes that comes back over and over again in _Our Mutual Friend_
The plot hinges around a disputed inheritance and mistaken identity, with a meditation about love as societal coin. The characterizations and situations in this novel are among his best-- particularly worth mentioning are Rogue Riderhood and his resurrection, the insane love of Bradley Headstone, the crippled doll-maker Jenny Wren, and the loyal Mr. Sloppy.
I'm not sure that I can call this my favorite Dickens, _Little Dorrit_ still has a strong claim on that position, but it's certainly one of the strongest reading experiences that I've had in a while.
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57 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 2003
I hadn't read Dickens in quite a while. Ten years had passed since I closed the cover of Bleak House and put it back on my bookshelf. But then I happened upon a recent biography of Dickens written by Jane Smiley (of all people). Being a huge fan of both author and subject, I picked it up. I won't review Ms. Smiley's book here (it's excellent, read it), but I was surprised to hear her heap such praise and adoration on this book. I'd heard of it and I knew it was one of Dickens' last works. But that was about all I knew, having limited my exposure to his "better known" works. Did "Our Mutual Friend" belong in the hallowed ranks of Dickens' best? I figured, a Pulitzer Prize winning author must know what she's talking about, right?
Well, she does. "Our Mutual Friend" is like a great meal at a fine restaurant. Chew slowly. Savor each bite. The beauty of this book is in its extraodinary and wonderful style of writing, delightful similes, vivid and uncanny character development (Dickens is the master, but he outdoes even himself in this work) and that odd sense you get when you close a masterpiece that you just had a once in a lifetime experience. The man can write!
Make no mistake, this is a tougher read than the earlier, more "Dickens-y" novels. But the characters are more rich, complex and interesting than in any other of his work. If you don't feel a sincere sense of mourning for Mr. Boffin's decline into miserism, and joy for...(well, I won't spoil the plot for you), then I can't help you. The caustically satiric language may be a shock to those used to the milder styles of Copperfield and Pickwick, but it is brilliant and I believe it is his best work. The grim story line is far from the lilting plot of a Nickleby, but it is gripping. I don't think I could name my "favorite" Dickens book. "Bleak House" and "Great Expectations" are up there. But "Our Mutual Friend" would certainly be a prime candidate.
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70 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2002
Charles Dickens's 1865 novel, his last completed novel, "Our Mutual Friend" is an extraordinarily dark and convoluted work. Featuring such unforgettable figures as Mr. Boffin, Mr. Podsnap, Bradley Headstone, Jenny Wren, and Silas Wegg, Dickens continues, or rather concludes his artistic legacy with a work rich in well written and compelling characters. Exploring, as do many of Dickens's works, the intricacies of inheritance, "Our Mutual Friend" is also deeply concerned with families and the things that hold them together or rip them apart. Interesting and fraught emphases on education, upholding particularly English interests in the face of the still rising British Empire, and concerns about the absolute uncertainties about life and death, this is quite a way to come at a last complete novel.
"Our Mutual Friend" begins with Lizzie and her father Gaffer Hexam patrolling the river in the dark of night. Pulling a body out of the river for the potential reward money, the novel jumps right into the action with a bang. The body is presumed to be that of young John Harmon, just returned from South Africa to claim a huge inheritance from his recently deceased, hateful and miserly father. The only heir dead, the elder Harmon's loyal employees, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin stand next in the will to inherit everything. This causes a stir in Society, where Mortimer Lightwood, the legal executor of the will, and his friend Eugene Wrayburn are called in to view the body and question Gaffer Hexam. This causes two others to be drawn into the plot - Lizzie Hexam, an uneducated, but prescient young woman, who immediately catches Wrayburn's eye, and Miss Bella Wilfer, a sprightly young woman whose marriage to young John Harmon was the sole condition for that gentleman to come into his inheritance prevented by his untimely death. The novel tries over the next 700 pages to work out the personal ramifications of the murder, the will, and the fates of these two young women.
So many of Dickens's novels deal with the lives and educations (scholastically, socially, or both) of young people, and "Our Mutual Friend" is no different. Gaffer Hexam, the boatman, is opposed to book-learning, and refuses to allow either Lizzie or his younger son Charley, to learn even to read. Lizzie arranges, though, for Charley to remove himself from the cycle of riverside drudgery by facilitating his escape to a school, where he excels under the tutelage of one of Dickens's most intense characters, Bradley Headstone. Elsewhere, the Boffins, now in a state of financial ease, seek to improve their cultural understandings, hiring a literary man "with a wooden leg," the well-versed Silas Wegg, and even buy the mansion that Wegg works in front of. Other characters, like the mercenary Bella Wilfer, the absolutely indolent Wrayburn, and the articulator of bones, Mr. Venus, all seem to be in sore need of social and moral educations.
Just to kind of continue this theme, one may be particularly interested in the kinds of literary funds that Dickens draws on in "Our Mutual Friend": His debt to 18th century literature is heavy indeed, with the works of the poet James Thomson and the historian Edward Gibbon coursing through the novel like the very Thames itself, laying the groundwork for literary and historical commentary on the nature of Empire and particularly British Imperial interests, and how those interests reach from the international into the lives of individuals. Another important predecessor in this line is the infamous Mr. Podsnap, a very dark descendant of Laurence Sterne's Corporal Trim from "Tristram Shandy." Trim's famous flourish, in Podsnap's hands acquires the power to annihilate entire nations. Dickens also reveals heavy debts to fairy tales and nursery rhymes that continue and complicate the novel's emphasis on children's educations, how they are managed, and the impact that they can have on the world as it will become.
If you aren't interested in reading "Our Mutual Friend" yet, you should be! Clearly, my interests lay in the national and educational strains of the novel, but there's obviously so much more. Now, my knowledge of Dickens may be limited to the five or six novels I've read so far, but you will be hard pressed anywhere in Dickens, (or anywhere else for that matter), to find a more frenetic villain than Mr. Bradley Headstone - to see him in action alone makes this novel worth reading. He ranks right up there with "David Copperfield"s Uriah Heep in terms of Dickens's most insistently horrifying creations. Ok. Enough from me, go, read "Our Mutual Friend." What are you waiting for! Go, now!
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2001
...of all the mighty works that his pen produced, hard pressed as I am to choose, I would say - if forced - that "Our Mutual Friend" is my favourite. Not by much, admittedly ("Bleak House", "Little Dorrit" and "Dombey and Son" will keep knocking at that door), but they haven't managed to barge into the pride of place reserved for "Our Mutual Friend" - the seat closest to the fire, as it were - just yet.
The reason "Our Mutual Friend" is my favourite Dickens? Well. It is just so dark. (You may say that "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is a darker work, and you may be right, but that is not a novel - that is a murder glimpsed through the window of a passing train - you don't know if it is serious or jest, and you will never ever find out.) This book - "Our Mutual Friend" - is a veritable nest of vipers. Not only that. The vipers are black. The vipers are made of night. Which isn't unusual. Dickens (like Milton) knew how to paint a good villain. Just that - whereas elsewhere, there is one singular villain (Bill Sykes, or Quilp say) - here there are many villains, each as dark as the other, each as particular and distinct a kind of nightmare as can be imagined. You have the corruption of the conniving Lammles, the crusty, flaky, stinginess of Silas Wegg, and the waterlogged, badmouthing of underhanded Rogue Riderhood. You have the insane obsessive love of Bradley Headstone. The two-faced usurer Fascination Fledgeby. You have - peculiarly this, but true all the same - the blackness of the river. The river is a villain in "Our Mutual Friend". The river is an enemy to truth. It swallows up stories as equally as it swallows up the bodies of the drowned. Like "Heart of Darkness", the river and its denizens (the houses that line the dirty shoreline, the population of those houses) poison everything, and the poison seeps out of the lowest house and into the highest. The river is responsible - at least in part - for the story about which everything else revolves: the Harmon murder.
Alongside the darkness (and elaborated within the pages of Peter Ackroyd's excellent biography "Dickens"), you have a definitely out-of-the-ordinary oddness to proceedings. This is an odd book. Dickens always provided comic relief. With a book this dark, you would think the comic relief to be all the more comic, but this is not the case. What once was comic is now slightly deranged. The relationship between Bella Wilfer and her father is like something out of a David Lynch movie. The character of Mr Venus, too. Is he a taxidermist? What is that fascination with bottled dead things? And bones? You have the young miss, the friend of Bella Wilfer, Jenny Wren, deformed maker of doll dresses. She is comic but, somehow, laughing at a child so weary from her corrupt bones as to look like an old old woman is wrong.
As such, the whole is a puzzle. Second time through, it isn't any easier. But that - essentially, dissatisfaction, or ambiguity - makes for a tremendously satisfying reading. Yes, everything is resolved at the end for better or ill, but still: there is a dark, pitiless buzzing (like a wasp trapped in your stove pipe hat) that remains with you long after you have finished the book and read others.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2007
The last completed novel by Dickens is also one of the darkest and, in my opinion, one of the best. The plot, as usual, is too dense and complex to be treatd here in detail. The story centers around one John Harmon, back from abroad to claim the inheritance from his deceased, horrible, and miser of a father. For reasons that are never explained (one of the several loose ends of the book), Old Harmon had set the condition that, in order for his son to receive the inheritance, he must marry a young, poor girl called Bella Wilfer, whom young Harmon had never met. One night, a guy whose trade was to recover things -and bodies- from the fetid Thames, along with his daughter, finds a corpse, which is later identified as that of John Harmon. Mysterious characters appear to have an interest in the affair, but the fact is that, missing the first-choice heir, the fortune must go to the Boffins, long time employees of Old Harmon. By the way, Old Harmon's source of fortune is a very strange one: he was a Dustman, apparently someone who trades in garbage and other discarded objects. The Boffins are an old, childless, good, charming, and ignorant couple. Feeling sorry for the death of beloved Johnny, and owing to a sense of reparation, they practically adopt Bella Wilfer. They also hire as their secretary an old tenant of the Wilfers, the mysterious John Rokesmith, who falls in love with the arrogant and pretentious Bella.

What follows is a mad, symphonic, convoluted tale of ambition, corruption, passion, crime, and revenge, as well as of confused identities. All in a tone of farce and black -but very funny- humor. Dickens paints his very own London, dark, wet, fetid, inhuman. The characters travel up and down the Thames, through St. James, the Temple, the City, etc., crossing time and again the dangerous river. They come and go all the time. The two young ladies, Bella and Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of the man who first recovered the body, are subject to mad passions, especially the latter. There are dozens of subplots, all worth reading. Dickens mocks just about every kind of people in London: business, politics, social habits. Most characters are mean and ridiculous. The vividness of the situations is witness to the enormous creative powers of this great writer.

Thre are too many characters to sketch them all here, but some memorable ones are: Miss Jenny Wren ("I know your tricks and your manners"), the dolls' dressmaker, smart, cynical, penetrating, beautiful and handicapped, as well as her pathetic drunkard of a father. Silas Wegg, "a man of letters and with a wooden leg", a sinister rascal who tries to dispossess the Boffins through blackmail, and his associate, Mr. Venus, embalmer and taxidermist, always sitting in his dark parlour, surrounded by phaetuses in bottles. Bradley Headstone, who literally gets crazy about Lizzie. Rogue Riderhood, the common criminal of the Thames. The most outrageous one is an usurer, a petulant and despicable pseudo-dandy called Fascination Fledgeby.

It's true: in contrast with most great writers of the XIX Century, Dickens does not create human beings. He creates cartoons. In fact, at least for me, some passages of the novel are more easily imagined as cartoons than as people. But, as Anthony Burgess put it, "Language and morality add dimensions to his cartoons and turn them into literature". This is an enormously funny book, well worth your dedication through its many pages. Some people criticize him for leaving subplots open and for not tying it all up close circle. Who cares, his power with words is extraordinary and his landscape of characters unforgettable.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 2004
Dickens's last completed novel gets off to a dramatic start with the recovery of a body from the River Thames. The body is believed to be that of John Harmon, the heir to a fortune amassed by his eccentric and miserly father, a "dustman" or refuse contractor. (In the 19th century, the word "dust" was often used in the sense of waste or refuse). Old Harmon had left his fortune to his son on condition that he should marry a young woman named Bella Wilfer, although there is no reason for this condition other than the old man's eccentric perversity. Upon the announcement of young Harmon's death, the money passes under the terms of the will to Nicodemus Boffin, a trusted employee of the old man, who adopts Bella as his ward.

Unlike some of Dickens's other novels, such as "Oliver Twist", "David Copperfield" or "Great Expectations", "Our Mutual Friend" does not have a single principal character at its centre. It has three main plots. Two of these are love stories. Bella is loved by John Rokesmith, the mysterious young man who finds employment as Boffin's secretary. The spoilt and mercenary Bella (Dickens may have chosen her surname because of its closeness to the word "wilful") initially rejects him as being too poor, but later comes to appreciate his good qualities. The other love story concerns Lizzie Hexam, a poor working-class girl who, with her father, finds the body in the Thames. Lizzie has two men contending for her affections, a young barrister named Eugene Wrayburn and an obsessive schoolteacher named Bradley Headstone. The third main plot concerns an attempt by a dishonest acquaintance named Silas Wegg to blackmail Boffin and defraud him of his wealth.

The method of publishing novels in monthly parts doubtless made economic sense in the 19th century, but artistically its effects were less beneficial. It tended to result in books which were overlong and which bore all the hallmarks of having been written in a hurry. "Our Mutual Friend" seems to have suffered from this more than many of Dickens's other novels. Many passages- even whole scenes- seem to have been inserted for no other reason than that Dickens needed to write a few extra pages in order to meet his monthly quota by the deadline for publication. The attempts at humour often fall rather flat and are not well-integrated into the rest of the book.

Nevertheless, this is still a powerful work. Dickens's main theme (as in some of his other works) is money, and its power to corrupt both those who possess it (such as old Harmon) and those who aspire to it (such as Wegg). Money is associated with images of waste and decay; old Harmon's fortune, which Wegg hopes to acquire, is based on the fact that he possesses large amounts of other people's rubbish. At a lower level, Lizzie's father Gaffer Hexam earns his living (albeit a meagre one) as a "dredgerman", one who salvages flotsam from the river. As the Thames was notoriously polluted during Dickens's lifetime, this can hardly have been a pleasant occupation.

Even when money is not literally earned from dirt, it can still come from morally polluted sources or have corrupting effects. Dickens has some sharp comments to make about grasping usurers and corrupt financiers such as Fascination Fledgeby and about the frantic mania for investing in shares which swept Britain in the 1860s. This seems to be a permanent feature of our economic system; Dickens could just as easily have been describing the speculation boom of the Twenties which preceded the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression, or the "Greed is Good" mentality of the Eighties, or the more recent "dot com" bubble. The sleazy nouveau-riche politician Hamilton Veneering is also a figure instantly recognisable to modern eyes. Even worse, in Dickens's view, was the callousness of many wealthy people of his day towards the poor; as in other novels such as "Oliver Twist" he attacks the Poor Law, the workhouse system and those individuals such as the complacent Mr Podsnap who would defend the system by denying the reality of poverty.

This is, however, not just a fictional treatment of the theme that money is the root of all evils. Boffin and his wife remain kindly, good-hearted people despite their unexpected prosperity. There are also villains whose villainy does not spring from greed or avarice. The most notable example is Bradley Headstone, a brilliant portrait of a man in the grip of both obsessive love and obsessive jealousy. He reminds us that stalking, like political sleaze, is not an exclusively modern phenomenon.

Perhaps the most complex character in the book is Bella Wilfer. Dickens has been criticised, often with some justice, for his inability to create credible heroines. He can create memorable female characters if they are old, ugly or wicked, but his young, beautiful and virtuous heroines are frequently pale and unconvincing figures who refuse to come to life. Everyone, for example, remembers "Great Expectations" for Miss Havisham, but few readers will remember it for Estella. Even in "Our Mutual Friend", Lizzie Hexam tends to conform to the type of the impossibly pure and noble beauty; only her social background sets her apart from Dickens's other, more middle-class, heroines. Bella is one of the few exceptions, precisely because she starts off as an unsympathetic character and gradually becomes more likeable. Initially a spoilt brat, she comes to realise that Rokesmith's unselfish love for her is more important than her hopes of wealth.

The River Thames is a constant presence in the novel; several important scenes are set on it or by its banks, either in London itself or upstream or downstream of the capital. This helps to give the novel a thematic unity and draw together what is otherwise a rather sprawling, diffuse book. It reminds us that Dickens's London is one of literature's great fictional landscapes, a landscape rooted in the real Victorian city but given extra vividness by the power of his imagination. (Apart from the marsh country of North Kent, where he spent much of his boyhood, no other geographical locations come to life in his writing in quite the same way). "Our Mutual Friend" is not Dickens's greatest work, but it contains one of his best evocations of this urban landscape. It also contains a penetrating analysis of the corrosive effects of greed on society.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2009
The works of Charles Dickens fell out of favor for the same reasons they were so much beloved: they are filled with treacly sentimentality and cartoonish characters. Yet, nobody tells a tale quite like this man can and man can this man tell a tale.
This book, with its many twists and turns; violence and death; subterfuge and espionage; lies and deceit; conspiracies and skullduggery; causes one to wish that Mr. Dickens had tried his hand at murder mystery, for this book has all the elements necessary for a pot boiler in that vein.
Yet, this tale as it twists and tangles around the repercussions of a mysterious death, and disappearance of an orphan returned to Merry Old England for to claim his inheritance is really about love, requited and unrequited; loyalty and trust; and friendship and honor.
None of these things come easy in a Dickens novel so it takes some 700 pages for us to discover how all will end. In between time the reader is treated to a page turner inhabited by all manner of creatur each in his own way utterly fascinating or entertaining, and whose parts in this play cause one to stay up reading late in the night from sheer entertainment and a desire to find out what happens next.
Interestingly and thankfully Dickens doesn't turn saccharine until about 4/5's into the book and one is struck by how modern the novel is up to that point. Although one wishes it didn't the book, being by Dickens, inevitably takes a maudlin turn as the tale winds to a close. All is forgiven though for the simple fact that the story is just so darned good that this is a small price to pay for such a great ride.
Suffice it to say that nearly all of the myriad ends that come dangling down in the course of the story get tied, and one closes the book feeling replete.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon May 7, 2009
This is one of my favorite Dickens novels, and that's saying something. I find Little Dorrit to be a delightful page-turner, and A Tale of Two Cities haunts me with the tragedy that is Sydney Carton. But Our Mutual Friend, while a harder read for me, is one incredible tale. Dickens' final novel, this is a very long story with a huge cast and labyrinthine plot. The story centers on John Harmon whose sadistic father leaves quite a hitch in his will: for John to get his inheritance he must marry a woman he's never met but that his father chose for him. Bella Wilfer is a pretty thing, all right, but John's father lived to punish his son, so John immediately smells a rat. He enacts a plan to discern Bella's true character, and our plot sets off in typical twisting, turning Dickens style. I had to read this book very slowly the first time to be sure Dickens didn't lose me. There's a lot going on here! The over-riding theme of this book is wealth and its effects on people, most of these effects being really bad. Just in case you might be about to miss this point, Dickens hits you over the head with it by making the source of Harmon's wealth his garbage-collecting business. (Do you smell that? I think it's irony.)The motif of the mounds of refuse is a powerful image of Dickens' attitude toward wealth and the society that surrounds it. There are too many characters and side-stories for me to describe, but suffice it to say that this is probably Dickens' most ambitious work in terms of sheer number of plots that are all tied together with incredible detail and style. And I think he created some of his most fascinating characters here, both male and female, from the poor but noble Lizzie Hexam to her two suitors: the Sydney Carton-ish Eugene Wrayburn(another ne'er-do-well attorney) and the frighteningly obsessed schoolteacher with the great name of Bradley Headstone. There's much humor in this book, too. Dickens deftly juggles storylines romantic, tragic, and also hilarious. I find myself unable to accurately describe this book except to say that while it's not a particularly quick or easy read, it's a fascinating work where Dickens shows his true skills at creating masterful plots and characters. This edition is nicely done and nicely priced, too. It's not one of those "super cheap" editions so it's a nice weight with smooth pages, nice print, etc. I can't recommend this book enough, either to the Dickens lover or the novice. It's a book unlike anything else I've ever read, and wonderfully so.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 16, 2004
"Our Mutual Friend," of all Dickens's novels, most emphasizes what a disgustingly filthy city London was in the 1860s. To be fair, it was probably no less sanitary than most other large cities of the world at the time, but Dickens takes peculiarly great interest in bringing the dirt to the surface in meticulous detail, as though he wanted to chronicle this information for a more health-conscious future age. The central feature in "Our Mutual Friend" is the Thames River, a watery morgue filled with floating corpses, and whose wharfs and docks are a dank repository for a variety of shady misfits. It is here, in the novel's opening scene, that the boatman Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie, who regularly scavenge the river for treasure-laden corpses, pull a body out of the river which turns out to be the remains of one John Harmon, heir to a wondrous fortune.

Harmon's death is obviously a case of foul play, but Dickens is less interested in rendering it a mystery than he is in spinning it into a web of character interaction in a grandiose study of cause and effect. Like that of a spider, the web is intricate and delicate: A man named Nicodemus Boffin, who inherits the money bequeathed to Harmon, may be suspected of the murder but appears innocent enough, especially in his and his wife's philanthropic nature manifested in their adoption of an orphan named Sloppy and their invitation to a girl named Bella Wilfer to live with them. Bella, whose father is a meek clerk for a member of Parliament named Veneering, and whose suitor was none other than the deceased John Harmon, receives the romantic attention of a young man named John Rokesmith (the titular "mutual friend"), who ingratiates his way into Boffin's employ as a secretary and is harboring a dark, crucial secret about his identity. The romance of Rokesmith and Bella--who, to complicate affairs, admits she only wants to marry a rich man, not a pauper like Rokesmith--is contrasted with the fierce rivalry of the snobbish lawyer Eugene Wrayburn and the jealous schoolmaster Bradley Headstone for the heart of Lizzie Hexam, whose brother Charley is Bradley's pupil.

Enough? Too much? That's not even the half of it. A novel like this, released periodically at the time of its initial publication, was intended to fill the same evening hours of entertainment for the reasonably educated reader that today are reserved for stultifying television shows. Dickens's contemporary readers had time to kill, so his long, convoluted stories were welcomed as instruments of leisure, his caricatures as veiled representations of the kinds of "other" people most people would recognize, ranging from the grotesque (the street balladeer Silas Wegg of wooden leg, the bone merchant Mr. Venus, and Jenny Wren, a doll's dressmaker with the mind and mouth of a remonstrative adult in the body of a child) to the strictly anti-grotesque (John Podsnap, an extremely self-satisified man who fatuously pursues a flawless society in which to cloak himself) to the affectionately stereotypical (the Jewish moneylender Mr. Riah).

"Our Mutual Friend" was Dickens's last completed novel, following the one I consider to be his masterpiece, "Great Expectations," and while it doesn't quite attain the quality of its predecessor, I judge it to be one of his better achievements because it lacks much of the sentimentality of his earlier works and the plot doesn't rely so much on improbable coincidences. This novel is more about the mood invoked by the sordid ash heaps and polluted waterways of the greater London area, populated by a vast cast of characters whose individual and collective stories build a microcosm that exemplifies a literary master at the consummation of his skills.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2004
Our Mutual Friend was the last complete novel Dickens wrote and, until the BBC television adaptation was made in 1998, it has also been one of the more obscure. It's a long book - most of Dickens's books are very long - and there are a number of plot diversions that don't really go anywhere, the most glaring example being the sub-plot of the machinations of the unfortunately shackled together ne'er-do-wells Sophronia and Alfred Lammle: they are spectacularly unsuccessful in carrying out anything remotely sinister beyond oily ingratiation (Dickens wrote his novels in installments for his own magazine and probably had plans for this couple to be more effective in their collusions; perhaps he either changed his mind or was talked out of it - just as he was persuaded by Bulwer Lytton, author of The Last Days of Pompeii, to get Pip and Estella together at the end of Great Expectations). The other thread that fails in Our Mutual Friend is the incessant satirizing of social climbers: the Veneerings, Podsnaps and Lady Tippins are worthy of Dickens's scorn, but they take up too much space - it's satire too drawn out and not particularly consequential to the workings of the plot.

However the meaty bits of plot in Our Mutual Friend provide a delicious stew of adventure, intrigue, romance, violence and murder set amid the dust mounds and the fetid waterways of mid-nineteenth century London. Once again, Dickens proves his unmatched ability to describe dirt! Once you've entered Mr. Venus's taxidermy shop, or spent time with Rogue Riderhood on the Thames, it takes a while to get the smell of dust, embalming fluid, rotting corpses, mud, and death out of your consciousness.

The plot revolves around a hero forced to change his identity because of the terrible danger he finds himself in after inheriting a great pile of money (courtesy of piles of dust!). He is tested in his resolve by the capricious Bella Wilfer, as sexy a coquette as Dickens ever dared put into his oeuvre (which means she's really not very sexy at all but we're talking about Dickens here - the man had nine children but seemed to prefer to avoid the "unpleasantness" of sex in his work). At the same time Mr. Venus and the ghastly Silas Wegg conspire to transfer the lucrative dust from Mr Boffin, the hero's other benefactor, to themselves. Meanwhile a whole other universe of plot is making its way through the novel - this involves Lizzie Hexham (one of Dickens's almost sickeningly goody-goody heroines) and the men who love her. The scenes where Bradley Headstone declaims his wrath at his languid rival, Eugene Wrayburn, are thrilling in their intensity. Headstone is one of Dickens's great villains because he's totally consumed by his infatuation for Lizzie - we can feel the white-hot intensity of his desire to bed her - he's incapable of reining-back his terrible obsession. And Eugene is a worthy addition to Dickens's cast of characters - he becomes infatuated with and eventually grows to love Lizzie in spite of his almost terminal ennui.

Our Mutual Friend would have been a cracking thriller (with a bit of romance chucked in) if Dickens wasn't so profligate with his writing. Nevertheless it is worth persevering with. As always, the descriptions and the characters place this book in the realms of great literature, as most of Dickens's works are. However much his style becomes unfashionable, there are always redeeming features - his sharp observations and characterizations temper his galloping over-sentimentality and his tendency to waffle on in certain areas especially while trying to make a point about the society of the time is redeemed by his unmatched powers of description, particularly his ability to describe dirt in all its permutations.
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