George Eliot weaves a simple story of love, suffering, and goodness. While the plot is hardly complex (boy loves girl, another boy gets girl, unhappiness abounds - also reused in Mill on the Floss), the manner in which Eliot develops her characters and their emotions and actions ring as true and resoundingly as a bell. It's so clear, so obvious, but also moving and textured. You feel Adam's absolute love for vain little Hetty, Dinah's calming grace, Arthur's good intentions, Lisbeth's fretting nature. Eliot draws you in with her honest observations of life in a country town, without the background becoming a dominant factor. The near idyllic life the characters lead is a healthy contrast to the town's emotional upheaval.
Adam is an upright, genuine character, and not as perfect as he seems. If his love for Hetty seems unfounded at times, it only serves to highlight how dangerous delusions can be. All the "sinners" are ultimately redeemed by truth - true love, true friends, true promises, and true acceptance. Religion plays a significant part in the novel, but don't let that deter you. It's so much more than that - Adam Bede is truly one of the few works that encompass a world of humanity between two covers.
AB reminded me of Tess of the D'Ubervilles a bit, but there is no villain here, just flawed, honest people in search of unattainable dreams. In the process of trying to get a bit of happiness, they stumble and bleed, but ultimately find something truly worth having. Bittersweetness is Eliot's trademark for good reason.
George Eliot's first full novel is obviously a bit less polished than her later works, but you see the wonderful command she has over language and expression. The book, the people, the story all come alive with her touch. A rare read that has something to say and says it beautifully.