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Dave Astor

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Reading Iconic Novels Later in Life: Worth the Wait?

Posted: 12/15/11 11:51 AM ET

I'm about to read The Age of Innocence, which reminds me that I feel guilt about the age I reached before reading a number of classic novels for the first time.

As a teen and young adult, I managed to polish off some famous books. But, for various reasons, other renowned novels remained tantalizingly in my future. Among them were All Quiet on the Western Front, Anne of Green Gables, Beloved, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Don Quixote, East of Eden, Ivanhoe, The Great Gatsby, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

If you wait years for something, the excitement and anticipation can be considerable. There are... ahem... great expectations! So, did the above-named novels live up to the hype when I finally read them? In some cases, yes; in other cases, not quite.

For instance, I found Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet to be a devastatingly vivid antiwar book, with a "you are there" feel to the battlefield scenes. I was even more impressed when I soon discovered that Remarque's The Night in Lisbon and Arch of Triumph were even better than the superb All Quiet.

L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables was a delightful novel about a whip-smart orphan girl who finds a family. Miguel de Cervantes' wonderfully picaresque Don Quixote had more humor amid the questing than I ever imagined. (I also never imagined I'd put Anne of Green Gables and Don Quixote in the same paragraph!)

Before I got to East of Eden, I thought of it mostly in terms of the movie version with James Dean. But I found this multi-generational novel to be good enough to rank behind only The Grapes of Wrath in John Steinbeck's canon. One East of Eden strength is its philosophizing Chinese-American character Lee, who "plays dumb" in front of anti-Asian bigots in late 1800s/early 1900s California but displays his considerable intellect when conversing with more open-minded people. He ranks with the Joads among Steinbeck's best creations.

Ivanhoe, with its good and evil Crusades-era cast, was so compelling that it started me on a Sir Walter Scott reading binge. And The Tenant of Wildfell Hall -- a gripping novel with a women's rights element -- showed me that Anne Bronte was a strong "A-minus" to the "A-plus" talent of her sisters Charlotte and Emily. (Anne's debut novel, Agnes Grey, is also very good.)

But then there were the novels that weren't quite as absorbing as I had hoped. Toni Morrison's Beloved -- published when I was a young adult, but not read by me until this year -- is a haunting saga set in 19th-century America's slavery and post-slavery years. But it wasn't as transcendent as I expected after respondents to a 2006 New York Times poll called it the best novel of the previous quarter century.

Death Comes for the Archbishop was a gem, but a little too controlled and low-key compared to My Antonia, my favorite Willa Cather novel. And F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- while written like a dream and featuring perhaps the most famous last line in literature ("So we beat on...") -- left me mostly unmoved. Maybe I'm not into reading about the trials and tribulations of the jaded wealthy.

Irksome rich people also populated many of Edith Wharton's novels, but that author seemed to cast a more cynical eye on them than Fitzgerald did with his monied protagonists.

So it's on to Wharton's The Age of Innocence -- and if that Pulitzer Prize-winning book is anywhere near as good as her The House of Mirth, there will be no disappointment felt here!

Which iconic novels did you wait years to read, and did they live up to your expectations?