My journey through books about the meaning of life continued with W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. While not as enlightening as Hesse’s Siddhartha, it was a solid, entertaining book, particularly for fans of Victorian British literature. Yes, I realize it was written after the Victorian era, but it nonetheless felt very, very Victorian.
It took me a little while to get into the book. For most of the story I simply didn’t care about Elliot Templeton and was very bored with his shallow life and the amount of time spent on him. I didn’t find much use for Isabel, either. Larry was the focal point of the story, and I probably would have given the book five stars instead of four if Maugham had used a third person narrator and simply left us to travel with Larry throughout. Instead, we see very little of the action of the novel, but instead sit with the author cum narrator as the juicy stuff is told to him over an endless procession of luncheons, dinners, and drinks.
But then, in the end, Maugham points out that he has written a happy book in which everyone got what they wanted. And yes, they did. Well, everyone except our narrator. What did he want? Just a good story? He did get that.
So what’s the book about? Mostly it’s about Larry Darrow, a young man with a modest independent income (that means he never has to work), from Chicago, which at the time was the epitome of booming American industry and symbol of the promise of wealth to come for the nation. Larry wants to “loaf” and read and, eventually to leave all the material needs behind. His betrothed can’t stand the idea of such a life, however, because she likes to shop and have parties, so they break up, but she still loves him to the point she doesn’t want anyone else to have him. Then there’s Elliot, who believes there is nothing in life worth experiencing outside the elite circle of French high society. The story continually contrasts Larry against the others, which emphasizes their vane shallowness.
A couple of things I didn’t like were the lack of real resolution at the end. Yes, Maugham offers resolution, but most of it is speculation. More troublesome was the way life immediately went back to normal after he confronted Isabel with his accusations concerning Sophie late in the story. She admitted he was right, offered flimsy justification, and suddenly things were back to the way they were. That just didn’t seem right.
All in all, this is a very engaging book, but only if you’re into, say, Charles Dickens without the quirkiness and set in the early 20th century.