Having previously read Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree, I was expecting a similarly light-hearted romantic novel, but this book proved to be anything but that.
In the first chapter the central character, Michael Henchard, drunkenly sells his wife to a sailor at Casterbridge fair, prompting horrified reactions from all bystanders. This action should set up Henchard as one of the most dislikable scoundrels in literature history; however, his character becomes more sympathetic when he wakes up the next day and realised what he has done, and then vows to remain teetotal for the next 21 years.
Twenty years later, Henchard is the Mayor of Casterbridge, and in love with a woman named Lucetta; however, his former wife Susan's return to Casterbridge prevents him from being able to marry Lucetta. Throughout the book, his actions in the first chapter come back to haunt him and have a significant effect on his life, and especially on his relationship with a Scotsman called Farfrae, who he takes on to work for him.
I was not sure what to make of Henchard throughout the book because, although he did not seem intended as a completely dislikeable character, some of his actions - which included lying to others, and his attempts to bully Lucetta into accepting a marriage proposal. However, in the end I found myself feeling sorry for him. Throughout the book, his relationship with Farfrae declines significantly, and forms one of the main staples of the book's plot.
The best thing about this book is that you can never exactly guess where the plot is going, and there are a lot of unexpected twists along the way that come as a complete surprise. The story was not particularly cheerful, with a lot of very sad moments, particularly at the end. At times it became a bit too long-winded, particularly with plots that revolved around corn gathering, but the plot revolving around Henchard's gradual downfall was compelling enough to keep me reading.
Next book: Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett