My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Let me start by echoing Mr. Goldman: “This is still one of my favorite books in all the world, and more than ever I wish I had written it.” This remains the most consistently entertaining book I know. Every page, every sentence, offers something wonderful: Humor, usually, but also warmth, wisdom, and occasionally pathos. Goldman’s witty and conversational prose (in his fiction, non-fiction, and fictional-non-fiction) has had such an impact on my own writing; I could only dream of being as effortlessly engaging in print as he, but it’s something to strive for. The story itself is as great as ever. With the possible exception of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Goldman captures better than anyone I know the sense of what it was like to grow from an introverted, bookish kid into an introverted, bookish adult, and the knowledge of how stories can add meaning to our lives. His exploration of what it’s like to fall head over heels in love with a book – to experience Joy in the Lewisian sense – is palpable and real. But equally, so are the reality of disappointment and the constant reminders that “life isn’t fair.”
Being a bit older and wiser than when I first read this book over ten years ago, the occasionally dated attitude towards women rankles a bit, and admittedly mars what is otherwise a pretty flawless classic. This is a minor point, however. Buttercup and Westley are likeable and memorable characters, but (despite their status as titular character and hero) are not really the story’s core. Far more important are the relationships between young Billy and his aging Florinese father (and subsequent relationships with Bill’s own son and grandson); The paradoxically romantic cynic, S. Morgenstern himself, who we meet only in expository asides and through the power of his own narrative craft; And of course the loveable Inigo and Fezzik. These supposedly supporting characters are responsible for much of the story’s power and drive. It’s their back-stories we learn in detail, their quests for hope and healing that we root for, their loyalty that saves the lovers. It’s no surprise that, in the aborted first chapter to the infamous sequel Buttercup’s Baby, Goldman chooses to focus much of the action on them. (Speaking of the sequel, I still hold out the faint hope that we might see that in full one day. Foolish maybe, but I can’t help it).
For those of you who have never read this book but have only seen the movie, I cannot recommend it more highly. It is everything that’s great about the movie, but so much more. All those great one-liners you love? Yup, all there, just as you remember them. But there’s more: The Zoo of Death, the story of how Inigo became the world’s best fencer and Fezzik the world’s strongest man, and (most hilariously) Goldman’s constant interruptions of the “good parts” to tell you what kind of tedious satiric nonsense he cut out. In a similar way to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The Princess Bride both celebrates and parodies classic literature which intercuts thrilling action with tiresome musings on the part of the author. With tongue firmly in cheek, Goldman’s most popular book is both love letter and critique of the form, and it’s brilliant. As Goldman brazenly says of Morgenstern, “You’ve got to admire a guy who calls his book a classic before it’s even been published,” and you know what? He’s right, on both accounts.