"My Antonia"

My Antonia by Willa Cather

"No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as "My Antonia".....H.L.Mencken

I haven't read anywhere near all the romantic novels ever written in America, but I can see what led Mencken to make such a bold statement. This is a beautifully written novel, romantic in all senses of the word. It's one of those books whose characters stay with you for so long that you wonder if you're remembering someone you read about or someone you actually knew, and whose setting you are quietly pulled into as soon as you begin to read.

I wasn't familiar with Cather's books, though I recognized her name from a gazillion "must read" lists. I couldn't believe how good it was and I'm still wondering why I didn't run across her books during my school years. Being Canadian we studied a lot of English literature, but I remember doing some American novelists, just never this one. Anyway now I feel like I've discovered treasure I didn't know existed and I love it when that happens! I'll be looking for her other novels at the local libraries, but come to think of it, I might have another one on my tbr shelf. Hmmm...I hope so.

The story is narrated by Jim, a young boy who moves to Nebraska to live with his grandparents after the death of his parents. Antonia is the daughter of immigrants who move into the same area. She and Jim quickly become good friends with the story following them into adulthood. There are lots of interesting secondary characters, some you'll hate and some you'll love, but for me the land itself, the wide open fields of Nebraska, became one of the main characters. You share with the book's characters the childhood freedom of roaming those endless fields. I love it when an author can make me feel such a connection to a place that I actually miss it when the story is finished.

The novel is put together a little different than others. It begins with an introduction in which the grown up Jim meets an old friend (unidentified) from his childhood. They talk about Antonia and decide to write her story, though it's left up to the reader to figure out why they thought her story was more important than those of other girls he grew up with. The first sections of the book tell of her growing up years, but once she becomes an adult most of what we learn about her is from what other people tell Jim. At first I thought it odd that the reader never really gets to know Antonia, but then I realized the title is not 'Antonia' but 'My Antonia'. It isn't really about her; it's about Jim's experience of her.

At times I wanted Jim and Antonia to get together romantically, at other times I thought they weren't really suited to each other. He always stood in awe of her, a position more suited to a "loving from afar" kind of relationship anyway.

Cather's epigraph is a quote from Virgil:"Optima dies...prima fugit", loosely translated as "the best days are the first to pass". That seems to be the over-riding philosophy of the story. There is a constant wistfulness for times past, in the first part of the book for the old countries and lifestyles given up for new opportunities in Nebraska, and in the last part of the book for the freedoms and innocence of lost youth. It gives the entire story a melancholy feeling that becomes more nostalgic than sad; in the end you feel things have turned out the way they were meant to.

I highly recommend My Antonia, a gentle, beautifully written book with depths to explore far beyond the simple story of friends.

7 comments:

Amy said...

I have this on my tbr shelf and keep picking it up but then choosing something else instead. After your review I think I will have to get to it sooner. It sounds really good.

Hannah Stoneham said...

Thank you for sharing this interesting and well written review - I have heard so many good things about this novel that I simply must get hold of it!

thanks for sharing

Hannah

bibliophiliac said...

I read My Antonia several years ago, and thought it was very lush, very beautifully written. I think it is surprising that Willa Cather is not read and discussed more than she is. I'm glad you reviewed this book.

Whitney said...

"At times I wanted Jim and Antonia to get together romantically, at other times I thought they weren't really suited to each other." I felt this exact way about Jo and Laurie in Little Women.

This is a great review, I need to read this book NOW!

Ordinary Reader said...

Whitney, I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. It really is a classic!

Book Quoter said...

I just bought this book today, I am so glad I did. It intrigued me. Can't wait to read it.

BookQuoter said...

I came back to tell you that I really loved this book. I will be posting it next week. I still find it so cool that I came home after buying the book and then I read your post. If you don't mind, let me know if I can redirect my post to your review, as you know I don't really review books.

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