Over the weekend I finished rereading Our Mutual Friend. I have been making notes to myself on the dining room whiteboard about the things that struck me this time through, and probably the biggest one is craft. That could be a really negative thing -- I hate reading books in which the writer seems to say "Look at me being a Talented Writer!" -- but I was delighted by the blend of joy and skill that bubbles through the book.
I've posted before about the webs of connections that characterize Dickens' longer novels, but I found it especially striking in Our Mutual Friend. Toward the end I was thinking, "Wait, when did Mortimer Lightwood meet Mr. Riah? Oh, I remember! Yet another clever thing for Dickens to arrange!" He is sometimes criticized for creating one-note characters, but in the longer novels with their giant casts it's a help to have an identifying feature. It's like rosy-fingered Dawn, only more exuberant: Sloppy's buttons are like eyes, Sloppy's buttons are watching you, Sloppy is a veritable Argus of buttons. When Sloppy reappeared at the end of OMF I sighed an unwitting sigh so emphatic that my 13yo asked me what was going on. "This is perfect," I said. "Absolutely perfect." Dickens uses an emblem of Sloppy's poverty and misery to turn him into the jubilant agent of a well-deserved comeuppance.
Somewhere around 2008 I got annoyed with Dickens' female characters. They tend to take the identifying feature thing too far for my taste: there's Ditzy But Sweet (Exhibit A: Dora in David Copperfield) and Noble Despite Circumstances (Esther in Bleak House). But Bella Wilfer is genuinely interesting. I sympathized with her even when I cringed a little at her, and her transformation is persuasive. In the scenes where she chats with the Inexhaustible Baby I wanted to invite her over for tea; I can hear her laughter in my imagination.
Another bit of novel-craft that stood out to me was the Bella-Lizzie contrast. (If you're reading this book (I'm looking at you, Kerry!), maybe skip to the next paragraph.) Early on we're introduced to two very different father-daughter relationships. Over the course of the book we see their entanglement with the mutual friend of the book's title, their meeting and becoming friends midway through, and their eventual marriages. Another thing I love about Dickens is his certainty that life is full of unexpected good gifts, and that comes through clearly in his portrayal of these two.
Last time I didn't notice, or at least I don't recall noticing, the thwarted malice of the old man whose will sets the book's events in motion. He intended to cause his son suffering that would endure for years after his death. What actually unfolds puts me in mind of Joseph's comment to his brothers: you meant this for evil, but God meant it for good. The same idea is more explicit in Bradley Headstone's turmoil (when Dickens names a character Headstone, you have a pretty good idea from the get-go that doom attends him): love transforms even the most evil intent. Love can bring good out of any circumstance.