First, what is the story of Brideshead Revisited?
It is the coming-of-age story of Charles Ryder, his relationship with the Flyte/Marchmain family and theirs with each other and their country estate, Brideshead Castle.
The novel is divided into two books. The first book opens in the mid 1940s with a middle-aged Captain Charles Ryder who is fighting in the second World War and has just moved his troops from a camp in Scotland down to the English countryside near a very large and old estate that has been commissioned for use by the War department. As the sun rises on a new day and his troops begin to get settled Charles realizes their new headquarters is actually the home of his old friends; it is Brideshead Castle and Charles is immediately swept up in his memories, both the sacred and the profane.
It is the roaring 20s and Charles is attending Oxford University when he first becomes acquainted with Sebastian Flyte. The two become inseparable and it is through Sebastian that Charles first beholds the beautiful Brideshead Castle and meets the distinguished yet dysfunctional Flyte/Marchmain family. For one year life is carefree and good and life shines down upon Charles and his friends like the sun on a summer day... but then things begin to change and the storm clouds blow in.
For the rest of the novel the reader watches as the characters struggle to define who they are and what they believe. Literary critics praise Brideshead Revisited for its depiction of the lifestyle of the rich and the royal during the pre-war years. They also laud it for the detail and dialogue as the characters struggle between their desire to be obedient to their religion (Catholic) and their desires of the flesh (hence the subtitled "sacred and profane memories").
By the second half of the novel as the story comes to a close the reader sees through Charles' eyes how everything and everyone is changing or changed. What has been is gone and no one is really truly happy, least of all Charles, who who is a self-described agnostic and a middle-aged lonely and loveless man who misses the past.
Overall I was unimpressed with Brideshead Revisited. For starters I found the first half of the book a slow and rather dull read, even though it technically is the more exciting part of Charles' life. And then oddly enough, I found myself breezing through the chapters for the last half as my interest in the story and the characters grew.
Waugh's writing is good -- there are some quotable passages, and even the occasional comical scene (i.e. Rex's conversion). I read somewhere that it contained some very funny scenes, but if they exist they were lost to me. I just didn't get the humor and did not find Brideshead Revisited an entertaining book. Instead I found the story sad, the characters pitiful in their self-absorbed superficial lifestyle, and when I closed the book my impression could be summed up in one sound, "Blah." Yes, Waugh does deal with some heavy issues, but for me that doesn't make it a great read. On a scale of 1-5, 1 being horrible and 5 being excellent, I would rate Brideshead Revisited a 2.5 to 3. It was OK.
That being said, I am glad I read Brideshead Revisited. I've always been curious about it and now I know. I still plan to see the movie adaptation as I am curious to see how the movie compares to the book, how the screenwriter and director choose to depict certain characters and scenes, and how Emma Thompson does portraying Lady Teresa Marchmain. But I must admit I have suspicions the movie will not be faithful to the book and will probably take liberties. I also suspect that I really should watch the 1982 BBC miniseries, as I've heard that is a more faithful adaptation.
I borrowed Brideshead Revisited from my local library, which is a good idea for anyone unfamiliar with the novel and uncertain if they will wish to re-read the book. There are many who love this book, but I am not one of them and I have no plans to re-read it. However, I do welcome comments from anyone who has read and loved Brideshead Revisited. I'm curious to know why others love it so much.
Note: I found it slightly amusing to discover Evelyn Waugh is a man. All these years I assumed the author was a woman because of the first name... Interesting.