My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book has been on my TBR shelf for a long time (as in years), and I’m glad I finally read it, although it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. If you had asked me halfway through the book how I would rate it, I would have given it a solid two stars, mainly because I could not stand the protagonist, Philip Carey. He seemed aimless and selfish, making one poor decision after another. Despite doing incredibly well in school, he left mere months before graduation, giving up an all but guaranteed scholarship because of adolescent stubbornness. After that, he floats from passion to passion, including a stint in Paris as an art student, until settling on medicine.
A large part of the novel involves Philip’s misguided attempts to find and understand love. He uses women, and then allows himself to be debased by women, in return. What I found so frustrating was the lows to which he was willing to sink in order to gain affection from the childish, manipulative Mildred. He knew she would never love him–he just wanted her attention any way he could get it. Similarly, he could be callous to those who loved him and yet he could not love in return.
As the book progressed, though, I realized that Philip was merely a product of his circumstances. Born with a club foot, both of his parents died at a young age, and he spent his formidable years with guardians who meant well but didn’t know how to relate to or raise Philip–they never served as mentors and never provided the unconditional love he so needed. Yes, he was aimless, but he also had a good heart, and would (and did) spend his last penny to help a friend in need (or, more often, a woman.) Although Mildred continued to have an inexplicable hold on him, Philip eventually realizes that the feelings he has for her aren’t love, and is able to keep some sort of distance despite continually rushing to her rescue.
It is a surprisingly accurate, if painful, portrait of man’s search for meaning when shackled not only by the expectations of society, but more aggressively by the torrents of one’s own, poorly understood emotions.