Blurb Book Review: The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham (spoilers ahead)

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This was published in 1944. I don’t normally read books from that era – I dislike the depiction of women – but this one was recommended by one of my sons, so I figured I’d give it a read. I was pleasantly surprised.

This novel feels like the opposite of what novels are today. There was very little ‘showing’ except to demonstrate that living in high society isn’t for everyone, nor is living moment to moment in search of God. Otherwise, the entire book was ‘telling’. The narrator (the author himself, I believe) tells the story of Larry Darrell’s search for meaning after fighting in the first world war. An opposite to Larry is Elliott Templeton, a snobbish man with a generous heart who worms his way into high society. Where Elliott can’t imagine living without being seen and invited to important dinners, luncheons, and events, Larry can’t imagine a life so constrained by rules.

The narrator tells the story as if the highlights to his life are the interactions of these characters, plus a few more others thrown in for good measure. I believe readers today might not appreciate this format. Rather, they’d expect the narrator to be a major character, not someone simply observing the lives of other characters and offering little to no opinion about the happenings. Writers today are drowned in advice to make sure the characters are all active, never passive. But here, in this book, the main character of the narrator is passive. He is a vehicle for Larry and Elliott’s stories.

Current authors are also inundated with advice to give the characters what they need, not what they want. This book is the opposite, where the narrator actually says at the end that each character got what they wanted out of life. To quote: “Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position backed by a substantial fortune in an active and cultured community; Gray a steady and lucrative job, with an office to go to form nine till six every day; Suzanne Rouvier security; Sophie death; and Larry happiness.”

I admit that while reading, I expected things to go horribly wrong for the characters and for them to learn what they really needed was more important than what they wanted, but this didn’t happen. Yes, Gray lost all his money in the stock market crash of 1929, but with Elliott’s gracious assistance they were able to float along until a time when Gray could find proper employment.

My other son mentioned this whole need/want shift might be tied to capitalism. My brain churned. Before, back in 1944, there was a middle class in America. People not only got what they needed, they had the freedom to reach and grab what they wanted. But as the middle class fell away the message shifted. Now, authors are telling stories about how people reach for what they want and instead grab what they need as determined by an outside force. Getting what you want is reserved for the elite, not the masses, and those masses should be grateful for receiving the gift as presented.

Overall, the book was quite good. I’ve indulged in many slice of life stories where events take place over generations and this novel fit right in to that framework. There was no inciting incident or climax to be seen. Instead it was the tale of one man’s search for meaning in life contrasted by another man’s burning need to be accepted by those of high standing in society. The narrator also points out that Larry was able to ‘loaf’ around because of independent wealth, and I appreciated that bit. Without money, people’s choices are much more limited.

Nitpick: near the end of the book the narrator is talking to Larry about Larry’s plans to go to New York. He says this: “Well, it’s your own money. You’re fee, white, and twenty-one.” But wait. The book starts in 1919 and carries on to mention the second world war, so it spans over twenty years. Larry is said to have joined the military while being underage – seventeen, I think – so he’d be over 40 by the time the narrator utters that line.

Otherwise, I see why this author is recommended. The narrative style and rich characters held my attention throughout.

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