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Tono Bungay is the odd name (picked out of a hat?) of a patent medicine developed by one of the characters in this "social novel" by HG Wells. It makes the inventor a tremendous fortune - for awhile. But in some ways it's more of a MacGuffin - a plot device - than anything else. The novel really isn't about Tono Bungay; mainly it's about the effect of sudden wealth on his main character (and narrator), George Ponderevo.
(If this were one of Wells's science fiction novels, Tono Bungay would turn out to have miraculous healing powers. But this one takes place in the real world.)
George was the son of a housekeeper on the Bladesover estate. As he grows up, he meets and falls in love with Beatrice, the laird's daughter. Only much later he learns that she'd fallen in love with him as well; but their class differences would have ruled out a marriage anyway.
George's life takes a different turn. He works for his uncle, a pharmacist, who invents a snake oil product that turns out to be surprisingly successful - the result, thinks the uncle, of combining a benign product with skillful advertising. George shares in his uncle's growing wealth. They move repeatedly, each time to a bigger estate. George marries Marion, a woman he doesn't love; has a passionate affair with a secretary; gets a divorce; makes another failed bid for Beatrice's hand, this time from a position of wealth - but not class - equal to her own.
He isn't an especially appealing character. He's nice enough in the beginning, and clever; he uses his wealth to finance his interest in balloons and gliders, his designs becoming more grandiose with each iteration. But he also uses people, and his efforts to save his uncle's business, once it begins failing, takes him into some dark moral territory indeed.
The first two-thirds of the novel is mostly all narration. Dialogue does break out from time to time, but usually only for a line or two. This sounds like a recipe for boredom, but George is a charming and delightful narrator (if not human being), and I found myself completely absorbed in the story. In the latter part of the novel, the scenes become longer, the conflicts more intense, the characters more sharply drawn. (It does, unfortunately, have a very preachy epilogue, but it's not a long one.)
Greg Wagland is a really good narrator of Wells. He's done other writers as well, including several volumes of Sherlock Holmes stories, but Wells seems to be a special project of his. I enjoyed his performance and recommend the book. Some critics apparently compared it to Dickens: I wouldn't go that far; it doesn't have Dickens' brio. But it does have an array of highly individualized characters and a morally dubious narrator.
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