Australian author Peter Carey's 1988 novel, which won him the Booker Prize, is an unconventional love story about two unlikely characters who only meet halfway through the book. Oscar Hopkins is a twitchy sensitive lad raised in Devon, England, by his dour widowed father, Theophilus Hopkins, an amateur botanist of some small fame and a preacher and elder of a puritanical Pentacostal sect. Young Oscar is a superstitious lad who looks for signs from the Lord to tell him what to do; desparate to know who is right in God's eyes, his stern father or the ineffectual Anglican minister, he must eventually follow the signs God gives him, which point inexorably to the Anglican. He runs away from home to the damp and moldy minister's house where he spends his teenage years.

Lucinda Leplastrier, meanwhile, is growing up on a farm in New South Wales, Australia. First her father dies, then her mother, the latter arranging, just before her demise, to sell off the farm in order that young Lucinda have a substantial fortune when she turns 21. Lucinda is a wild young thing who can't abide by the starched crinolines expected of women in her day - the mid-to-late 19th century; she wears bloomers under her too-short skirts, raising scandalized eyebrows when she moves to Sydney.

Once grown, both discover a passion for gambling, Oscar at dog and horse races - he interprets his winnings as signs from God and gives away any earnings he can't use immediately; Lucinda at card games that run long into the night - she discovers for the first time in her life a convivial community of men and women. Meanwhile, Oscar is studying theology in preparation for becoming a minister, Lucinda has bought herself a glassworks. The two finally meet on a boat sailing from London to Sydney; Lucinda is returning from England, where she bought supplies for her factory, and Oscar is setting off across the ocean - hydrophobia aside - to undertake foreign missionary work. They discover their mutual passion, and an unlikely friendship is born, one that eventually blossoms into love.

The story takes an impossible turn as Oscar convinces himself that Lucinda loves another, a priest who has been posted to a small village in the outback. Together, Oscar and Lucinda conceive a plan to build a glass church which they will send to this priest, and Oscar says he will accompany it on its journey. They wager their inheritances - his, nothing as yet, hers, a fortune: if he safely delivers the church within an allotted time, she will hand over her fortune; if not, she will take his. She sets about making sure he will be successful, and...well, then comes the end of the story, which is strange and surprising, and which I won't give it away.

The book is satisfyingly long, complex, and beautifully written, a poignant tragic comedy. Carey has a pleasing sense of politics: he introduces themes of class - through stuffy Britishers who look down on shabby Oscar; race - through bigoted Australians who see aboriginals as savages; and sex - through all of Sydney society who cannot, it seems, see Lucinda for the businesswoman she is.

Oscar and Lucinda was made into a movie in 1997, directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Ralph Fiennes as Oscar and Cate Blanchett as Lucinda. I had my doubts about Fiennes playing this batty red-head with the perpetually messy hair - it seemed a less masculine role than his usual fare - but he carries it off with aplomb. I knew Blanchett would be wonderful, and she did not disappoint. But the movie as a whole left me unsatisfied, and not just because the book is better than the movie. The screenplay emphasizes the relationship between to two lead characters, so their previous lives are reduced to abbreviated flashes of narrative so telegraphic that whole swathes of the story are lost or thrown open to a host of (mis)interpretations.

Not that there's anything wrong with stories that are open to multiple interepretations. But in this case, people don't seem to be able to tell after watching the movie what actually was supposed to have happened. Why did Oscar leave his father; did they have a disagreement? How did Lucinda get into the glass business; did she inherit that factory? The reviews I read on the internet gave many widely divergent accounts of the plot line, and so it seemed odd to me that in spite of this lack of clarity the movie got, by and large such raves; that must be in large part because of the great acting job of the two leads. The other thing missing from the movie, besides narrative clarity, is the politics: I was particularly saddened to see that the central theme of Lucinda's chafing against her role here only represented by her unusual costume. If you hadn't read the book, you wouldn't have known that this represented anything more than her unconventionality. Oh, and the ending. No spoiler; just let me say that Lucinda has a much harder time of it in the book than in the movie...

"Oscar and Lucinda" won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.

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