One of my favorite websites has a book review series called “Classic Trash”. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor definitely belongs in this category.
It is the story of the orphaned Amber St. Clare, and her rise to fame at the court of Charles II. Raised in a small village in the countryside, Amber is distinguished by her great beauty and rebellious spirit. She longs for adventure, and over the course of 900+ pages, she finds it. She travels to London, has affairs, marriages, children. She is witness to the plague and the Great Fire of London. Her single-minded pursuit of wealth and power is a wonder to behold. She sleeps her way to top, and becomes a favored mistress of the King. Throughout all this, Amber remains faithful in her heart to the only man she wants, the “one man she can never have”, Lord Bruce Carlton. Their on-again/off-again love affair is a central theme of the story.
Originally published in 1944, the book was banned in 14 states as pornographic. I found it to be fairly tame by today’s standards. There is nothing explicit here; all the sex is implied. But the unromantic depiction of Restoration England and the absolute lack of morality in court society may have had something to do with the criticism. Glittering parties, rampant infidelity and back-stabbing abound. Good Times! These are completely amoral people here. I’d heard that Charles II (they didn’t call him the Merry Monarch for nothing) had a LOT of mistresses, but I was left wondering when he’d had time to actually rule the country. Winsor does a masterful job of presenting this world to us without judgement.
Amber herself, while not exactly likeable, has a pluckiness that you can’t help but admire. It’s like hanging out with your self-destructive college roommate, the one you go to parties with until you find people with whom you actually have something in common. Even when she is at her most reckless, you want her to come out on top, because, really, she’s got a good heart. You watch in fascination, and you occasionally shout, “OMG WHAT ARE DOING???? Amber, GIRL, NO!!!” But she doesn’t hear you. Because she’s a fictional character.
I never quite understood Amber’s obsessive love for Bruce. Are we supposed to see him as dashing, and honorable in his own way? Not sure. His wants and needs are presented as more noble than the frivolous court, but I just found him to be selfish and cruel in his treatment our heroine. I wanted Amber to gather her self-respect and just send him away already.
The one real problem I have with Forever Amber is how it ends. Without giving anything away, the ending of the book is abrupt and we are left feeling that there should be more. I’d read somewhere that after editing, the final manuscript was one-fifth of the original length. Was something cut? Or did Winsor intend a sequel? We’ll never know.
Told on an epic scale, Forever Amber is a rollicking story without any kind of moral center. It’s like a gooey piece of candy with about 732 empty calories. It’s like a flashy piece of costume jewelry with no real value, but boy is it shiny! This book is all of those things, and good fun to boot.