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What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life

A-The Things That MatterLiterary scholar Edward Mendelson, a professor at Columbia University, examines seven highly regarded novels by five female writers for their insight into seven generalized stages of life. With an emphasis on analysis from a personal perspective (a style of criticism he calls "more memorable, more convincing, more valid"), he writes about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a metaphor for birth and its attendant powerful emotions, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as a paean to childhood, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as the quest for adulthood, George Eliot’s Middlemarch as a study in the joys and horrors of marriage, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts as explorations of love, parenthood, and the future.
Pantheon. 288 pages. $23. ISBN: 0375424083

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The essays mix in a number of specific thoughts about how the novels work with an overarching thesis that surfaces, often engagingly, but not always rigorously, and sometimes arguably. … There is a compelling case to be made for Woolf, and the author makes it in his book’s last and most dazzling section." Richard Eder

Newsday 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mendelson is an acute critic, even if his approach can be overly schematic. … His readings will send you hungrily to these classics in search of an answer." Matthew Price

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Obviously, this book isn’t for everyone. … But those who have read these books and been moved by them—or not—will find this collection thought-provoking, imaginative, perfect to have a conversation about—if they can find someone with whom to have the conversation." Carolyn See

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"Filled with sage insights into literature and life. … [W]hile it’s difficult to wholeheartedly recommend The Things That Matter, it’s impossible not to wish for more books full of such sound critical insight and moral judgment." David Propson

Critical Summary

Though the book is somewhat hit-or-miss, critics agree that the hits outnumber the misses. A particular standout is Mendelson’s essay on Mrs. Dalloway, which both conveys the essence of the novel and offers acute insights into its eponymous protagonist. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Frankenstein piece, less coherent and evocative than the others. The writing is sometimes overly constrained by the "stages of life" structure, though Mendelson delves into his characters’ moral journeys as well. This collection will be best enjoyed by literary enthusiasts who know these novels well and can interact with Mendelson’s work from a standpoint of personal experience and opinion.