The Way We Live Now is a complex and compulsive tale that traces the career of Augustus Melmotte, a strange and mysterious financier who bursts into London society like a guided missile. In setting up a dubious scheme based on speculative money and stock market gambles, Melmotte manages to lure in several members of the English aristocracy, for whom money is the summum bonum. The world is at his feet - until the corruption catches up with him. Considered one of Trollope's greatest works, The Way We Live Now leaves the listener questioning whether much has changed in the last century or whether this, after all, is the way we live now.
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Drawn in by British TV and radio, I've concentrated my Trollope-reading on the Barchester and Palliser series. The Way We Live Now is the first standalone Trollope novel I've tackled.
As always, the characters are unique and realistic, few of them all good or all bad. There are four callow young men - Paul Montague, Dolly Longstaffe, Felix Carbury, and Lord Nidderdale (if he has a first name, I missed it) - and although it's easy to get them confused in the beginning, their different personalities soon assert themselves. Of the four, Paul is the closest to being an honorable man, but even he has moral baggage: a woman from America, with whom he lived for awhile and then dropped, has followed him to England and threatens to cause a scandal.
Hovering over the proceedings is the brooding figure of Augustus Melmotte, a wizard of finance, who promises to make the fortunes of many but turns out to be the mastermind of a kind of Ponzi scheme. He has a daughter, Marie, who is pursued - for her money - by Carbury and Nidderdale. For the sake of her fortune, they're willing to overlook Melmotte's shadowy past, which includes the possibility that he may be Jewish.
Which brings us to another point. There's a fair amount of anti-Semitism depicted in the novel. One subplot, involving another couple, results in tirades of racist invective: it's so over the top and so clearly irrational that it seems to absolve Trollope himself of being anti-Semitic. But the author's point of view isn't always so obvious, and it remains a vexed question. Trollope strikes up conversations with his readers easily and repeatedly, and he never hesitates to tell us what he thinks of his characters; but he never takes the trouble to make himself clear on this one issue.
David Shaw-Parker is a wonderful narrator of Trollope who has done all the Barchester novels for Naxos. Long may he continue. He has the knack of capturing exactly the right tone for Trollope - affectionate, amused, clear-headed, and eminently sensible. And he can do a credible American accent as well, which for this novel is crucial.
The one thing he can't do is make any of these finely drawn characters endearing. It's a great job, but there aren't any heroes to root for in this one.