This novel is unexpectedly strange and deeply psychological–not at all your typical 19th-century fare. The author flouts expectations in almost all aspects of the book, from the construction and flow of the plot, to the characters, their motivations and their relationships with each other. Most immediately noticeable is the relative absence of the eponymous Daniel Deronda throughout the first half of the story; instead, the author focuses extensively on Gwendolen Harleth, a flawed character who is as beautiful and vivacious as she is small-minded and self-centred. Many of the character traits that a more romantic author, such as Jane Austen, would employ in the creation of a heroine are used by Eliot to create an anti-heroine whose faults are unsettling in their similarity to the virtues of, say, Eliza Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. Likewise, Deronda, when he does make an appearance, is not at all the dashing hero you might expect but rather introspective, reserved and overly-conscientious. His moral influence on Gwendolen makes for a uniquely uneasy relationship that is at once intensely meaningful and unusually platonic. Other interesting characters abound, many possessing well-developed psyches that render them as complicated yet predictable as real life.
Another unusual aspect of this book is the author’s increasing focus on Jewish culture and Judaism in the second half. Perhaps my general lack of interest in the topic made me more easily bored, but several of the theological and philosophical sections were difficult to get through with a good attitude and I found the Jewish characters to be a little flat and uncharacteristically (for the author) stereotypical. Eliot seemed too eager to incorporate her extensive studies on the topic into the story, which came off as a bit academic and unnatural. Also, the concept that an innate sense of national identity can survive in someone, independent of their upbringing, does not seem plausible to me and I felt the story suffered as a result of the author’s reliance on this idea. All in all, though, this book is well worth reading and truly stands alone in its genre, though some of the unusual aspects that constitute its strengths also contribute to its weaknesses.
[Why I read it: I watched the BBC miniseries (because it had Edward Fox in it) and enjoyed it enough to want to check the book out.]