Just finished this morning. Despite my preference for happy endings it is still one of the best books I have read lately. There wasn't a single character that I loved but I felt like I understood all of them and their individual motivations. If you held me at gunpoint and forced me to choose the one I most identified with I would have to go with Scarlett.
I think she gets a completely raw deal in this story...led on by Ashley and then tossed aside for Melanie, forced to endure the bonds of widowhood at a very young age as a result of an impetuous mistake (and don't go woe is Charles for getting stuck with her because he wanted her and he got her, it was a two way street - no black magic or love potions here, he saw his chance to upgrade and he leapt upon it). Then she was barely tolerated for wanting more out of life than to toil and tend when faced with the duties of womanhood during a wartime she not only didn't understand but was deliberately encouraged not to understand. Then she keeps her word after being emotionally blackmailed by Ashley and Melanie to stand by Melanie during the burning of Atlanta and to singlehandedly save her and her child's life. She sweats it out basically alone in the fields of Tara to bring in enough money to support her now extended family that was depending on her. She takes her survival instincts one step further and takes the only course of action she can see that will save the land and her family (and yes it was at the expense of a sister who never lifted a finger to help anyone and wasn't truly in love, just wanted the status and title). Faced with a loveless marriage and an incompetent husband she further defies social norms and enters into industry determined to raise enough money to secure herself and her family forever. In the course of doing this she is victimized by ruffians and then blamed when her foolhardy vigilante husband gets killed in a selfish attempt to regain his "manhood", abandoning her at the one time in her life when she actually needed and wanted him to physically be present for her. Rebuffed by all society she marries the only person who has ever stood by her in any way despite his constant insults, condescension and put downs. She doesn't hold it against him, builds a life with him, continues to support her family (and the ever dependent Ashley and Melanie) until Ashley, who continues to lead her on, compromises her further sealing her shunning from all those that she knew. Melanie, blindly rejecting the evidence in a bid to maintain her security (which is housed, not in her husband but in Scarlett) further binds Scarlett to her. In the end her husband, who supposedly loves her, gives her nothing but unkindness and disrespect even in the face of her declarations of love, Ashley rejects her in favour of the deceased Melanie but remains an albatross around her neck, Melanie blackmails her into supporting her family forever, Scarlett's family rejects and insults her while still surviving on her generosity. And she is alone.
Of course, you can tell this tale from hundreds of different angles and they would all be true. This book truly provides fodder for thought and argument and may be one of the best book club books ever. I'm surprised Oprah hasn't recommended it but I guess the political slant of it might not appeal.