I’ll admit it: I used to hate Charles Dickens. I blame it on picking up Great Expectations when I was eleven and being totally disturbed. That is one weird book. But, I am very grateful for BBC movies, because without them I might never have read what are now two of my favorite books: Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.
Our Mutual Friend opens when John Harmon, the heir to an old curmudgeon’s fortune, is found drowned. Harmon was returning to London to marry a girl he had never met: selfish, petulant Bella Wilfer, who old Mr. Harmon spotted throwing a temper tantrum when she was young and decided on a whim to force his son to marry before he could inherit his fortune. Bella’s one goal in life is to be rich, and she is incensed and frustrated when John Harmon dies and her hopes are dashed.
Thanks to Harmon’s death, the fortune goes to Mr. Boffin, a kind-hearted, bumbling “dustman” (garbage man) and his sweet wife, who scandalize society with their unsophisticated ways when they set up house in the fashionable district. The Boffins shock Bella when they express their guilt at how their good fortune has cost her her fortune, and offer to take her under their wing.
Harmon’s body was found by Lizzie Hexam, a poor young woman who loyally takes care of her ill-reputed father, even though he makes his living by dragging bodies out of the Thames (and, rumor has it, helps some of the bodies along to their deaths). Lizzie’s beauty beguiles a lazy and cynical barrister who is far above her station, as well as a respectable but insecure and deranged teacher.
The tie that connects them all is a mysterious man named John Rokesmith, who happened to appear in London the night John Harmon died, and gradually manages to inch his way into each of the characters’ lives. He becomes Mr. Boffin’s secretary, and Bella is annoyed and disdainful when she realizes that he seems to be constantly and surreptitiously watching her.
This is quite the motley cast of characters, but this is Dickens, so don’t think for a moment that the fun stops there. There is also a one-legged man who sells poems and sneaks around the junkyard at night looking for treasures, a man who runs a skeleton shop and is heartbroken that his true love won’t marry him because of his bony occupation, an old lady whose one goal in life is to avoid the workhouse, a down-on-his-luck lawyer who is determined to solve the Harmon murder, an old society broad who calls everyone her lover, a sharp-witted but crippled doll’s dressmaker, a cruel little businessman determined to ruin his wealthy “friends,” a wise and compassionate Jew, a ruthless couple who married each other for money and then found out they were both poor…and seventeen other minor characters (that I counted, I’m sure I’m forgetting some).
As usual, Dickens’ brilliance lies in his ability to spin all these seemingly unrelated lives in their own directions and then suddenly pull a string and tie them all together. The characters are complex and dark; there are a lot of poor choices made and a lot of character growth. My favorite part of the book, though, is the ending. You think you’re really smart and know what’s going on, until you realize that Dickens has just been slyly letting you think that so he could suddenly turn everything on its head, make half the characters different than who you thought they were, and tie it up in one brilliant, neat-as-a-pin conclusion. Our Mutual Friend was the last book Dickens wrote, and arguably his most complex and profound. It’s just spectacular, and unfortunately I can’t tell you more about the plot because I would have to give it away.
All I can say is: go read it. Particularly if, like me, you dislike Dickens’ other more well-known works. If you’re feeling a little daunted, watch the movie. The BBC did a great job with it, and it will probably inspire you to read the book.
Five stars, and it makes my list of all-time favorite books.