Review: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

From December 2004

As this novel was banned in Boston (my hometown) when it was first published in 1944, Forever Amber was high on my must-read list, if for no other reason than to discover what the Puritan hullabaloo was all about. The Massachusetts attorney general cited “70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and ’10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men'” as reasons to ban this book.  Now, sexual morals (at least publicly) were quite different in the 1940s than they are in the 2000s, and I recall feeling rather disappointed in the lack of explicitness I was expecting from a banned novel. At the same time, however, I found this lack of explicit detail also refreshing, leaving lots of room for the creative imagination, something that does seem to get lost in our day and age of  explicit everything.

An unexpected treat, this! Since this “romance” (quotation marks because this is a much more complex, convoluted romance than one would expect) was published in 1944, I wondered if the writing in this book could pass the test of time, and sure enough, Forever Amber is an example of  timeless writing. It whisked me straight back to the Merry Monarch’s London (the pretty and the ugly) with vivid descriptions and congruous dialogue, and one would never know when it had been written.

This must be the only novel I’ve ever read where I was utterly DISGUSTED by the main character. So why did I desperately care about her anyway? Herein lies the secret of Forever Amber–a unique characterization that repulses and compels at the same time. Perhaps it’s a woman’s Catch 22–in trying to live like an unconscionable man (whoring, cheating, using), she ends up in a woman’s desperate situation, anyway.

Amber is not a likable character: she is sexually promiscuous, greedy, and uses people cruelly. In my humble opinion, she got what she deserved…I thought. Once I realized the reason she acted the way she did, however,  all of her “sins” softened and became understandable.  It is simply thus: Amber is obsessed by a man who repeatedly uses her and tosses aside her love. Repeatedly. Everything Amber does is focused on pleasing this man, on gaining his affection, including (the most astounding part of the book) selflessly (Amber, selfless???) remaining in plague-infested London to nurse this bastard to health while barely escaping alive herself. I’m sure at least some of us can empathize with unrequited, obsessive love, which may explain the popularity of this book.

I have several small qualms with this book, although it came quite close to perfection in a novel. One is that characters insignificant to the plot are intricately introduced, only to disappear shortly afterward, never to be heard from again. Occasionally, events “hopscotched” about, leaving me puzzled about what some events and characters had to do with the overall plot line. These were minor annoyances, however, and I ripped my way through this 900+page gem as fast as this reader’s eyes could manage! This one kept me up a couple of nights, which is maybe the highest compliment I can give a novel.

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