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New Yorker writer Mead happy to give 'Middlemarch' a boost with new memoir

This book cover image released by Crown shows

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This book cover image released by Crown shows "My Life in Middlemarch," by Rebecca Mead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Crown

TORONTO - George Eliot's "Middlemarch" may have been published almost 150 years ago, but it's suddenly having a "moment" — thanks to New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead.

Mead's new memoir "My Life in Middlemarch" examines how the classic novel has affected her life. In the process, it appears to have drawn new readers to Eliot's masterpiece.

"One of the happy side effects of writing this book for me is that it's leading people to read 'Middlemarch' who haven't read it," Mead said in a recent interview, noting that Eliot's weighty tome is suddenly a hot seller on Amazon.

"I hope that you'll read 'Middlemarch' (after reading my book), or that you'll want to."

Eliot's sprawling tale — which touches on themes of marriage, money and idealism — first made an impact on Mead when she was a 17-year-old growing up in provincial England. At the time, she was drawn to the character of the young gentlewoman Dorothea Brooke.

"She wants to have a more significant life, she wants an intellectual life — she doesn't really know what she wants but she knows she wants something more than just marrying the baronet next door," said Mead, 47.

"And I was trying my hardest to get out of my provincial town, trying to get into Oxford University when nobody in my family had ever gone before ... this character who wants something similar spoke to me very, very vividly."

In her 20s, when Mead was living in New York City working as a journalist wondering if she would get married, a re-reading of "Middlemarch" had her pondering the relationships in the novel.

Later on in her career when she revisited Eliot's book, she found herself relating to the character of Tertius Lydgate, an aspiring doctor who ultimately compromises his professional ideals.

"That story of how can it all go wrong and how can you lose your ideals.... You wanted to cure cancer and you end up shooting Botox into rich ladies," Mead said with a laugh.

As her 40s hit, Mead said, "Middlemarch" struck a chord in terms of "the resignation and limitations that you start to feel settling in upon you when you are entering middle age and thinking of things you have not done and are never going to do."

Such personal revelations are traced in "My Life in Middlemarch," although it is by no means a tell-all memoir.

"I didn't know how much memoir there was going to be until I was writing it, what balance would feel (right)," said Mead.

"It takes a certain kind of leap of confidence or 'not caring' to reach a point where you say: 'All right, I'm going to write about me and my life ... and I've spent 20, 25 years writing about people who aren't me ... so there was something to get over in that undertaking. But once I did it, it was really fun."

While it may seem like a leap of faith to write a memoir about a meaty classic novel in an era of dwindling book sales and reduced attention spans, Mead still believes there are a lot of avid readers in the world.

And she's hoping her memoir may bring a few of them to Eliot, whom she believes deserves the kind of respect that popular culture has recently afforded to Jane Austen.

"(George Eliot) is at one time widely acknowledged to have written what may be the best novel in the English language ... but I think people who love her and people who love this book ... we feel a little bit as though she's not appreciated as much as she should be," said Mead.

"For anybody that has loved Jane Austen, she's like a gateway drug.... (Eliot is) the next step for anyone who loves that kind of thing but doesn't know where to go next."

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