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The Brothers Boswell

by Philip Baruth

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705310,317 (3.15)7
In 1763 London, John Boswell, the resentful younger brother of Samuel Johnson's future biographer, is stalking Boswell and Johnson, who have recently become friends. John bribes the boatmen who ferry his quarry on the Thames for the smallest details of their conversations. As he remembers the past, John reveals a personal link with the great lexicographer, with whom he once shared a brief, close relationship.--From Publisher's Weekly.… (more)
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Showing 5 of 5
Baruth's narrator is John Boswell,younger brother of the famous diarist/biographer. He has come to London with revenge on his mind--although it's not quite clear what he holds against his brother and his new friend, Samuel Johnson. On an earlier visit, he convinced James to give him a key to his rooms, and he has been sneaking in, reading his brother's journal to find out his plans for the day do that he can follow Boswell and Johnson. The novel opens as he dogs the two on a day trip to Greenwich.

John is an unreliable narrator, at best. We learn that he envies his brother's friendship with Johnson, his good looks, and his general popularity, and that it seems he himself has had an intimate relationship with the dictionary author--or has he? And of course, he resents the usual fate of being a younger son in an aristocratic family. The novel tracks his efforts at spying on James and Johnson and his ultimate plan for revenge.

While this was an interesting premise, I found it fell a bit short. Generally, I'm fond of unreliable narrators, but this one was a bit too transparent and the conclusion a bit too facilely happily-ever-after. I gave it three stars for the premise and for the fine descriptions of London and society in the 18th century. ( )
  Cariola | May 3, 2019 |
This clever and engaging story is told from two points of view--James Boswell and his younger brother John. It's 1763 and the twenty-two-year old James is absorbed in his plans to meet Samuel Johnson, get a commission, and seduce a not-so-famous actress.

John is a very unreliable narrator. He's just been discharged from an asylum and his memories are incomplete and somewhat paranoid. He resents not being included in James's social successes and stalks James and Samuel Johnson as they spend a day together.

Events are woven into the famous episodes of Boswell's London Journal in such a way as to make the reader reconsider how reliable a narrator James Boswell has been. It's well written and lively like Boswell's Journal and so fun that it made me want to revisit the source of Baruth's inspiration. ( )
  literarysarah | Jul 28, 2013 |
This was OK, but didn't grip me. It was quite a good example of a genre of literary novel which seems to me to have been done to death. ( )
  annesadleir | Aug 21, 2012 |
Book's big strength is its vivid depiction of London and Edinburgh in the 18thC. Baruth has obviously done lots of research, but done well at choosing telling details instead of throwing in the whole kitchen sink. John Boswell, James' lunatic younger brother, stalks James B and Johnson through London. It's sibling rivalry gone psycho, with an unreliable narrator. Not too thrilling as thrillers go--not much suspense when you already know James B and Johnson weren't murdered. Still, well written with well-drawn characters. ( )
  beaujoe | Nov 11, 2009 |
Samuel Johnson and James Boswell are well known literary figures and friends. James Boswelll’s brother John is less widely known. It was the combination of a novel about two authors I didn’t know very well combined with an unstable, hidden brother that intrigued me immediately when I was offered a review copy of Philip Baruth’s novel entitled The Brothers Boswell. I selected this novel for the Historical Fiction Lover’s book club in September, coinciding with Johnson’s 200th birthday. Baruth wrote a wonderful guest post in May in preparation for reading his novel. I was happy to crack the book open when September rolled around.
While reading the novel, I learned quite a bit about the Johnson and Boswell. I didn’t end up enjoying the read as much as I had anticipated, though. As I started reading, I found it difficult to get in rhythm with the language. After the first few chapters I was able to read more comfortably and the story started to pick up when John arrived on the scene. The potential of what might happen with John as he tracks his brother and Johnson like unsuspecting rats in a London maze kept me reading despite the slow going. I found the sections directly about James Boswell the most difficult to read. I did not care for him at all. I found him nearly repulsive in his own self-importance. In fact, I was almost hoping he’d find his comeuppance at the hands of his younger brother. Unfortunately, the conclusion didn’t pay off for me. While this novel might appeal to those with more intimate knowledge of Johnson and Boswell, I wasn’t the right reader. ( )
  LiterateHousewife | Sep 10, 2009 |
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TO JOE CHANEY,
the sort of friend you call when it becomes
necessary to go to Scotland.
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In the rare event that one must follow two others without being observed, follow them closely from first light to summer dusk, certain conditions are best met.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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In 1763 London, John Boswell, the resentful younger brother of Samuel Johnson's future biographer, is stalking Boswell and Johnson, who have recently become friends. John bribes the boatmen who ferry his quarry on the Thames for the smallest details of their conversations. As he remembers the past, John reveals a personal link with the great lexicographer, with whom he once shared a brief, close relationship.--From Publisher's Weekly.

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