February 07, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

My Life in Middlemarch

Current Status
In Season
Rebecca Mead
We gave it an A-

Can a book shape the course of your life? In a thoroughly engaging mix of memoir and biography, New Yorker scribe Rebecca Mead explores how her relationship with Middlemarch, George Eliot’s classic tale of 19th-century English country life, has evolved over time. Described by Virginia Woolf as ”one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” Middlemarch struck a deep emotional chord in Mead, first when she was a bookish teen in England aching to leave home, and then again at points throughout her life — as she attended college, moved to the U.S., had love affairs, married, and became a mother. Mead says that over the years she remained fascinated by its urgency and relevance, by ”the acuteness of its psychological penetration and the snap of its sentences,” and especially by the ways in which the book examines complex issues of morality. ”The novel opened up to me further every time I went back to it,” she notes.

Her book, which roughly follows the structure of Middlemarch, is primarily a literary biography, and a lovely, accessible one at that. As she traces the threads connecting Eliot’s life and work, Mead infuses lively insight into both the author and the novel. Her own experiences, peppered throughout the narrative, never overwhelm it; Eliot and Middlemarch remain her primary focus.

Fans of this Victorian mainstay — or, really, any book lover in a passionate long-term relationship with a novel — will find Mead’s research and analysis deeply gratifying. And if you haven’t ever read Middlemarch, Mead’s lucid writing will send you straight to the bookstore. A-

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