My husband recommended this book to me, and I’m happy to say I enjoyed it immensely! I’m even prouder of how he showed off his own Readers’ Advisory skills when selling it to me. He focused on appeal. In particular, he focused on the appeal factor he knew I’d like the most.
Please enjoy a capsule RA 101 instruction, courtesy of Marie’s Husband:
When selling Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, my husband had a lot of options for how to pitch the story to a reader. He could have talked about the Midwestern setting, drawn in simple but exquisite and evocative detail. He could have mentioned the ear for dialogue and speech patterns. Or even the satiric social commentary about small towns, social conformity, and the way society views socialism and feminism.
All of these factors are accurate and interesting. And I’m sure he did mention all of these things, either while he was reading it himself or when he was talking to me about it. But like a good Readers’ Advisor, he used his knowledge of my reading habits and interests to pick just the right appeal factor to mention in order to pique my interest: “It’s about an idealistic young woman from the city, who’s been working as a librarian, who moves to a tiny town on the prairie with her husband, and she starts trying to reform the town and the people in it to suit her ideals. Most of the story is about her trying all these different ways to change them or to make herself fit in, and how her success (and lack thereof) affects her personally. There’s a lot of personal dissatisfaction and trying to overcome it.”
Sign me up!
“I think perhaps we want a more conscious life. We’re tired of drudging and sleeping and dying. We’re tired of seeing just a few people able to be individualists. We’re tired of always deferring hope till the next generation. We’re tired of hearing politicians and priests and cautious reformers… coax us, ‘Be calm! Be patient! Wait! We have the plans for a Utopia already made; just wiser than you.’ For ten thousand years they’ve said that. We want our Utopia now — and we’re going to try our hands at it.” —Main Street
As my husband intuited, my favorite aspect of the novel was indeed Carol’s personal journey. She’s a well-drawn, sympathetic character, and you feel for her even when you don’t agree with her. She’s idealistic and intellectual, romantic and poetic. Carol wants so badly to make friends, to help, to fit in, to make Gopher Prairie work for her, that every time she hits a wall you want to groan in sympathy. (personal aside: the section where she attempts an amateur dramatics society made me cringe Waiting for Guffman–style, so it was really well-done)
“My dear man, there’s nothing I’d like better than to be by myself occasionally… I suppose you expect me to sit here and dream delicately and satisfy my temperamentality while you wander in from the bathroom with lather all over your face and shout “seen my brown pants?” —Main Street
The novel’s core is about her marriage, her friendships, and her ideals, as well as her temptations and desires for more. What’s great here is that Carol is the hero, in so much as there is one–the book doesn’t judge her or punish her for her longings, but rather gives her as much as it can. The tragedy is, as Lewis points out, that Main Street is everywhere. You’ll find Gopher Prairie wherever people form their cliques. Which is, of course, everywhere.
“The days of pioneering, of lassies in sunbonnets, and bears killed with axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot; and a rebellious girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American Middlewest.” —Main Street
I also enjoyed the social critique. Lewis presents problems but not any clear answers, which I think is perfect. This isn’t a preachy, moralizing book. Unless you want to preach about how the worst aspects of small towns are also humanity’s worst aspects, that is.
There’s a lot to like in this novel. I’m planning to read Lewis’s Babbitt next, as I like Lewis’s characters and the cut of his social commentary jib.
–Marie and Marie’s Husband (who more than earned co-author credit on this one!)