Charles Dickens Challenge: The Old Curiosity Shop

My fourth book in the Charles Dickens Challenge was The Old Curiosity Shop, which is one of the books that's often cited as an example of a stereotypical Dickens novel - and everything that's wrong with him as a writer. So I have to admit that I approached it with some trepidation that it really was going to be as terrible as everyone said. But actually, I ended up being pleasantly surprised.

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The Old Curiosity Shop tells the story of 13-year-old Nell Trent, who lives with her grandfather in the shop of the title. After he falls into debt through gambling in order to ensure Nell's financial future, they are forced to flee from his creditor, the dwarf Daniel Quilp, who makes Tyrion Lannister at his craftiest look like Bambi. The book then follows them as they attempt to flee as far from London as possible. Meanwhile, Nell's wastrel brother convinces his friend Dick Swiveller to marry Nell in order to get his hands on her perceived fortune.

Like Dickens' previous novels The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop has an episodic form which actually ends up being rather humorous due to the cast of characters they meet along the way, from the Punch-and-Judy men Codlin and Short to the waxwork show owner Mrs Jarley. Consequently, even in the scenes when the main characters were in jeopardy, I had a very strong sense that everything was going to turn out all right - there wasn't the sense of peril and crushing oppression that there was in Oliver Twist. It also gave the infamous ending a very fitting sense of relief and the end of a journey; despite the sadness for the characters, there was also a strong feeling of peacefulness. It might be one of the few books I've read recently where the ending was actually quite satisfying (bet you weren't expecting that from the girl who hates endings now were you?).

Although on occasions Nell was a little too angelic for her own good, she actually turned out to be a surprisingly sympathetic character, and the relationship between her and her grandfather felt very realistic. I also loved Kit, Nell's friend in London who constantly strives to create a better life for his widowed mother and young siblings and acts as a moral compass  However my favourite character was by far and away Dick Swiveller, partly for his brilliant name and partly because he feels like one of the first Dickens characters I've encountered who actually changes significantly over the course of the novel.

Overall, I found The Old Curiosity Shop much easier to get through than the previous novels in the Charles Dickens Challenge, and a lot more enjoyable. It was a really good blend of what I liked from the other books, particularly in terms of the comedy, but also felt like a much more complete novel in terms of the characters' development and the sense of being in good hands that ran through it. Next up for the challenge: Barnaby Rudge.

What books have you read that have surprised you?

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