The only other book I've read by Booth Tarkington was Penrod, a story about a mischievous boy growing up around the turn of the century. I remember it as funny and profound upon the subject of boyhood, kind of like Tom Sawyer.
The Magnificent Ambersons, aside from the time period, the early 1900's, and the setting, the American Midwest, is not at all like Penrod. As an under current in the book, Tarkington preaches about the general nastiness and inevitability of urban sprawl and how the automobile and the factory have destroyed community and cleanliness and all that makes life worthwhile. Preaching aside, Mr. Tarkington still manages to tell an engaging story, a sort of family epic, the rise and fall of the Ambersons.
Georgie Amberson Minafer is a spoiled rich brat, reared in luxury and with a sense of entitlement. The Ambersons, George's mother's family, are the center of society in their "Midland town." From the beginning of the novel, the author sets Georgie up for disaster; the entire town is waiting for George Amberson Minafer to get his "come-upance". As George grows up the reckoning is delayed again and again, but the most casual reader must know that George's pride goeth before a fall. George's favorite word for other people, all others who aren't Ambersons, is "riff-raff". His attitude can only and always be described as condescending, even with the young lady with whom he falls in love.
So, The Magnificent Ambersons is first of all a cautionary tale. Pride is destructive. Things change; no one stays on top forever. Fortunes come and go. Only those who are strong, wise, and flexible, and maybe even lucky, can persevere to enjoy the good life.
However, the book is not just a preachy, moralistic fable. It's a picture of life at the turn of the century, of how change affects different personalities. It's a love story about a mother who idolizes her son, and a young man who loves his family pride more than he cares for the woman who is willing to overlook many of his faults and who could have made him happy. And the ending is about forgiveness and hope and the possibility that broken things can be, if not mended, perhaps made new.
I've not seen the Orson Welles movie based on this book, but I plan to do so. After reading the novel, I can see how this books would make a great "old movie". No modern remakes, however, nowadays a writer and director would most likely ruin the movie version with gratuitous sex and a plot in which only the characters' names were borrowed from the original book.
A Work in Progress review of The Magnificent Ambersons.