But I’ve since realised that, for me at least, there’s such a thing as book chemistry.
I’m a big believer in the idea of “the right book at the right time”. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve started one, lost interest or given up and put it aside, only to come across it months or even years later, and proceeded to fall completely in love with it. The book I once couldn’t force myself to finish would suddenly be the one I couldn’t put down.
Then a few years ago, a friend of mine gave me his copy of Tess of D’Urbervilles and told me to read it. It was a second-hand (more like fifth or sixth-hand, probably) paperback edition, complete with stained yellow pages, cracked spine and a stranger’s name written inside the front cover. I started reading it mostly to humour my friend, because I’ll admit just the sight of the author’s name on the cover brought out the defeatist in me.
And then I couldn’t stop reading it.
At the time I was living in a dive of a flat, which was perpetually cold and dark, so I spent hours every day curled up in a blanket next to my lamp, unable to tear myself away from Tess. I don’t know what had changed. It seems too simple to just put it down to the fact that I was older. Because something about Tess of the D’Urbervilles, at that particular point of time in my life, spoke to me like no other book could. It was one of the most intensely emotional reading experiences I’ve ever had. It sounds dramatic, but I felt a connection to the story that was almost overwhelming, the strength of which has not waned with passing time.
With its initial publication in 1891, then censored and serialized, Tess received a mixed response. And not much has changed. I’ve grown used to the varied reactions when I name it as my favourite book and Tess herself as one of my favourite literary heroines. While the nature of the criticism has changed since the original objections to its portrayal of a “fallen woman” and the sexual mores of the time, to some, Tess is still an unlikely choice.
I could spend pages writing about what I love about her. But one of the most powerful things I think Hardy communicated through Tess was what a tragedy it is to love the idea of a person, rather than the person herself.
And in the age that coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, when female characters can appear as idealized concepts rather than real people, Tess’ story still feels relevant and powerful.
It’s been said that, in the context of the novel itself, Hardy is Tess’ only true ally. The only person who sees her as she truly is and whose love encompasses every aspect of her. So I like to think of all the people who have been touched by this book, identify with her story, and shelve it along with their favourites. All the love for her that now exists.
[As a sidepoint, I also recommend the beautifully produced 2008 BBC adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, from which the screencaps above were taken.]
Reynje is a contributing writer at The Midnight Garden and can also be found on Goodreads and Twitter.