Review: Coming Up for Air

Coming Up for Air Book Cover 

Coming Up for Air
By George Orwell
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
October 1969
288pp 

The Short of It: 

An odd little book, but what a treasure. 

The Rest of It: 

I’m not sure why I enjoy Orwell’s writing so much. It may be his pessimistic take on what we call civilization, or it could be that I am a bit of a realist. I see things as they are…no imagined glory here. The same can be said for this book. Coming Up for Air is a novel about George Bowling. He’s a married, middle-aged man who after winning a horse race, decides to visit his hometown to re-live the years of his youth. 

There’s a bit of a problem though. George is married to Hilda and lives the typical suburban lifestyle that includes a house and two kids. George doesn’t seem to want to remember this though. The day-to-day that George shares with us is anything but dreadful, but the normalcy, the lack of excitement is a constant thorn in his side.  With war looming in the distance, he reminisces on how life was, and how it could be. 

There’s time for everything except the things worth doing. Think of something you really care about. Then add hour to hour and calculate the fraction of your life that you’ve actually spent in doing it. And then calculate the time you’ve spent on things like shaving, riding to and fro on buses, waiting in railway junctions, swapping dirty stories and reading the newspapers. [Page 93] 

But Lower Binfield is not what it used to be. As you can imagine, progress can be a wicked thing to behold and George’s quaint hometown is not so little anymore and even the things that haven’t changed, seem to be different twenty years later. 

It’s a queer experience to go over a bit of country that you haven’t seen in twenty years. You remember it in great detail, and you remember it all wrong. [Page 209] 

To add insult to injury, the people are not the same either as evidenced by this account where he happens to run into an old flame. 

Only twenty-four years, and the girl I’d known, with her milky-white skin and red mouth and kind of dull-gold hair, had turned into this great, round-shouldered hag, shambling along on twisted heels. [Page 243] 

What’s wonderful about this book is that everyone can relate to it. Things change. We change. There is a “George” in all of us and Orwell’s wry, sarcastic take on progress is at times very funny. This isn’t an account of a man falling apart. There is no mid-life crises per se, but what we view through George’s eyes is a quiet realization that one cannot recapture their youth and that time marches on whether or not we accept it. 

If you enjoy “day in the life” type stories you will enjoy this one. 

Source: Purchased.

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16 Responses

  1. Probably a good lesson for all of us. You definitely can’t go back.

  2. I actually like this kind of book as well, and am adding this to my TBR immediately. The cover alone caught my attention, but those quotes are wonderful. I like this about Annie Proulx’s Shipping News as well… it’s why it’s one of my favorites. There is nothing sugar coated — just real life. In a way these kinds of novels make me feel better about my life than the others — make me feel more normal!

    • I agree. I always feel more at ease with myself after reading books like this one. The mundane, day to day stuff gets to me though. It’s the one thing that brings me down.

  3. I’ve never thought to see what else Orwell has written, but this sounds like a book I would really enjoy.

    • I am planning to read all of his books now. I was told that he has a few short story collections as well that I’m interested in. At some point I want to re-read 1984 and Animal Farm too.

  4. I’ve only read 1984 and Animal Farm. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Coming Up For Air.

  5. It is funny … I never expected or thought that Orwell would write a “normal’ type of book about real people.

  6. I have never even heard of this one, but i does sound like the type of book I would enjoy; thanks

  7. I do like these type of stories and thanks for bringing this one to our attention!

  8. Sounds like a great read! I’ve had this one on my shelf for ages, but for some reason I’ve been waiting to read Homage to Catalonia first (which I still need to buy). Perhaps, I’ll read this one first and then pick up Catalonia later. I like that its about change, as that has been something I’ve been thinking about lately. Thanks for the heads up, Ti!

  9. I like the looks of this one and really haven’t read anything by Orwell except 1984 (although I supposedly read Animal Farm in high school, I have no recollection of it). It’s fun to learn that he wrote other books that I am unfamiliar with – like finding hidden treasure.

  10. [...] Us by Thrity Umrigar 36. The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman 37. Labor Day by Joyce Maynard 38. Coming up for Air by George Orwell 38. Naked in Eden by Robin Easton [review and tour coming soon] 39. Strangers at [...]

  11. Oooo….adding it now to my TBR list and my TBRecommending to my husband. Thanks!

  12. I’m glad you mentioned your review as I have been having trouble finding other bloggers take on this. This was my first Orwell and I was expecting it to be completely depressing ;)

  13. [...] Us by Thrity Umrigar 35. The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman 36. Labor Day by Joyce Maynard 37. Coming up for Air by George Orwell 38. Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes 39. Invisible by Paul Auster 40. [...]

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