PrecautionPrecaution by James Fenimore Cooper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apparently, this book had myriad errors when it went to press, and was not properly edited (why James Fenimore Cooper let that happen is anybody’s guess), but I had been assured by the venerable Lord Gosford that the text had been sufficiently cleaned up to ensure an enjoyable read. Gosford has impeccable credibility-more or less.

The first chapter introduces us to a bevy of characters, which included not only the core main characters, but the new neighbors down the road who would figure prominently in the story. The withering array of characters right off the bat coupled with the deficiencies alluded to makes chapter 1 a tough read. I created a little cheat sheet that I referred to for several chapters to keep score. It worked.

My understanding is that this was Cooper’s first novel, English style in the way of Jane Austen & co. He was successful in that way, but as in most of these types of victorian English stories, a plot line was hard to delineate, and you depended on the characters being interesting. With the number of characters in the story, some were interesting, some were not.

One of the interesting ones was old uncle Benfield, in a comic relief sort of way. Benfield appeared a bit senile, so you couldn’t really take everything he said as absolute fact. Seemed like the present reminded him of the past, no matter how absurd the disconnect that he forced. I wonder how Lord Gosford would have felt about being a punchline that lasted almost the entire book.

Unlike the two Jane Austen books I’ve read (Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion), this book had a bit more action, if you can call it that. Maybe a better description would be mystery or intrigue. A mysterious young man shows up at the local rectors place with a sick old man, and pries his way into the social circle of the main characters. How trusting and gullible they are, for this guy was a secretive as they come. In fact, it seemed as if he was hiding something. Now that you mention it…

A prominent feature of any of these Victorian type novels is the horse race to get the girs married off to some handsome rich man. The Moseley’s had three daughters, and they all were of age and on the hunt, so to speak. As luck would have it, there just happened to be three men in the vicinity that fit the bill. The oldest, Clara, shacked up with the rectors son, and Emily fell for the stranger (Denbingh), although what she saw in such a suspicious character only she would know. Jane, the other daughter fell for a soldier (Col. Egerton) that was staying with the new neighbors described earlier. The son of the new neighbors was the odd man out here, because he was a jerk. But as Tom Petty said, even the losers get lucky sometimes. Just not right away. Perfect! All is well, right? Anybody that has read any of Cooper’s other books knows he’s long winded (in a good sort of way), and short and to the point is absolutely not his style. All was not quite as well as it seemed for a moment.

Not being a short book, it was a little annoying that characters are described, but their name comes up later, not at the time of description, forcing you to go back and make the connections. If you have any plans to skim through this book, don’t even start it. It’s a slow read, not necessarily bad, but a little frustrating that the flow of the story bottles up here and there. Considering the ultimate convolution of the story, taking your time reading this would be the best policy.

The bouncing around in scenes began to get a little unweildy, considering they weren’t that exciting for the most part. You really had to slow down to comprehend what was happening, and when you did you found that it was not much ado about anything. A little over half way through, Cooper introduces another set of characters that ultimately served as props for the main characters. That didn’t stop him from going through their various stories, with pages of history regarding ancillary characters. Did I mention the characters needed to be interesting? The side characters for the most part were not, although the story would have more holes than it did if they weren’t there. Despite the fact that you had to keep score with the characters being thrown your way, these people ultimately ran in a small circle. They continually ran into eachother at social events, vacations, etc. In order to fulfill appearances, they would hang out with those they despised. After all, the girls were husband hunters by trade, and this was the circle that they had to choose from. They just had to do a little digging to get to the diamonds.

If Cooper has any writing defects (and they are few; he’s one of my favorites), it’s that he will come up with ridiculously unlikely scenarios, here and in other books. Quasi-spoiler here (but not really). Denbingh, the mysterious (creepy?) guy of Emily’s dreams runs into to Col. Egerton, not once, but twice in military battle, even saving his life at the battle of Waterloo. What are the odds. Well, slim to none, but again, it’s one of Cooper’s deficiencies, if you want to call it that (Mark Twain tore him apart in an epic tirade), but this if fiction, and Cooper has a style that will keep you engaged. My guess though is that the Flesch-Kincaid reading level is fairly substantial. Very readable though, but just a caveat for you skimmers.

In the end, we get the impression that everybody lives happily everafter. Then I thought of Denbingh, who was fresh back from a bloody encounter with Napoleon’s French Army. Cooper never talks about him again, but such a gruesome experience must have affected him in some way. We can only speculate. At least he had hot Emily to make it better.

I give the book three stars. Very good for a first novel, even given the editing issues. I say this in the context of victorian English novels. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s a pretty good book. If not, it’ll be just as boring as any of the others, despite the smattering of action Cooper doles out here and there.

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