The Magnificant Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 11 hours, 18 minutes
Reader: Mark F. Smith

The book: The Magnificent Ambersons won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for best novel and was famously adapted by Orson Welles in what is widely regarded as a potentially great film ruined by studio meddling. More recently, the book was included on the Modern Library list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. Because of these accolades, I was perhaps expecting too much from this book, so it was not surprising that I was disappointed.

The novel starts out well, introducing a family who has made their fortune in building up the commercial and residential sections of their town during the late 1800’s. In the first few chapters, Tarkington beautifully sets up a pair of potential romances as well as the seeds of conflict. He then squanders the entire middle part of the book by simply reiterating the characterizations that he so efficiently established at the beginning, while beating the reader over the head with the fact that automobiles have changed the face of America. The changes in society due to new transportation could have been an interesting thesis, but very little happens in these chapters that wouldn’t be improved by cutting the length. The story recovers to a satisfying conclusion in the last ten chapters or so, but not before most of my interest was lost.

Rating: 6 / 10

The reader: I’ve said many times before, but it bears repeating that Mark Smith is one of Librivox’s best readers. His excellent narration is one of the reasons why I was able to continue listening through the doldrums of the middle chapters. Smith’s petulant whine for the spoiled Georgie is spot-on and his Ward Cleaver-like George Amberson captures the character’s geniality. If you’re going to listen to an audiobook of The Magnificent Ambersons, this should be it.

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