Similar to Passage, A Room with a View is a romantic period piece involving a young woman undertaking some exotic travels. We start off in Italy with a young woman, Lucy, and her chaperone, Charlotte, staying in a hotel overlooking Florence. The book title comes from an early experience in the book where Lucy and Charlotte are disappointed to find that their hotel room does NOT have a view of the river. Some other tourists, a father and son…the Emersons, hear their conversation and offer to change rooms with them.
Through a series of both mundane and extraordinary events, Lucy experiences Italy. She makes new friends and is discouraged by her aunt/chaperone Charlotte to not make friends with the Emersons who are largely looked down on by all other visitors to the hotel. Naturally, Lucy and the son, George, are pushed together by a variety of circumstances. She finds herself excited, frightened and confused by her feelings towards him and by midway through the novel they are separated and she has decided to hate him.
As Part Two of the novel opens, we find Lucy back in England, engaged to be married to another man, Cecil. It's evident that she doesn't love him and in many ways doesn't even like him. But she's confused about who she is and what she wants. To confuse matters more, the Emersons come to stay in the same quiet little town.
In many ways you can probably predict the story arc. There are a number of surprising and unexpected elements but the general progression of the book is somewhat predictable. Many of the characters are flat and unremarkable. And yet, the book is deemed a classic and lauded as great. So what makes it so?
One thing is that the book is vivid with details. It creates a wonderful backdrop of setting and culture as it describes and shows England and Italy. There is a lot of depth in the way the two countries and cultures are counterbalanced against one another. That counterbalance seems evocative of an underlying theme in the novel.
Where Italy is portrayed as more open and free, England is shown as stifling and constrictive. Indeed the tourists flee from England to Italy in an attempt to gain freedom from their home.
While there are many static characters, they too may be part of the thematic contrast against the few very dynamic characters…showing the difference between the staid, predictable characters and the developing, emerging characters.
Although there are some political nuances, iI think it's safe to say that the novel isn't commenting so much about the politics or culture of Italy vs England as it is about the idea of growing as individuals (particularly women) by breaking free of repression and oppressive conformity. Rather than simply accepting the status quo and allowing ourselves to be pushed into a box, we need to learn how to think for ourselves, find out what we truly want to become and then work to break free and become what we are capable of.
In many ways, this felt like a fairly typical period romance from the late-19th/early-20th century. And in many ways it is. But with its detailed writing and intriguingly nuanced characters as well as interesting counterpoints, I can see where this novel gains its praise. It's not likely to be something I would read again and again, but it is certainly worth exploring and could certainly benefit from a close reading with attention to theme and detail.
4 out of 5 stars
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