The story opens with some wonderfully descriptive language about London shrouded in fog. Which is no doubt a metaphor for the court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. We learn about the case almost immediately, and meet one of the affected parties, a Lady Dedlock, but Dickens does not enlighten us as to what the case is about or why it has lingered so long in the courts. Indeed, it's shrouded in fog. Then, in the third chapter, Dickens really throws us a switcheroo, when suddenly there's a new narrator (previously third person omniscient), a Miss Esther Summerson, who begins by telling her story (after informing us that she's not very clever and might not make so great a narrator...thanks, Charles). She was raised by a Godmother, who we later learn was her aunt. We don't know what happened to her parents, except that her godmother/aunt tells her one birthday that her mother had disgraced the family, presumably by Esther's birth. We learn nothing else. When the aunt/godmother dies, Esther learns she has a benefactor, who is connected with the Jarndyce case, who sends her off to boarding school, where she's quite happy for a few years. Then she is suddenly called to London, where she will fill the position of companion to Ada Clare, a cousin of one of the Jarndyce's. Ada and her cousin Richard are going to live with one of the Jarndyce's at an estate called Bleak House. It's not clear why, except that this was somehow one of the outcomes of the lawsuit. Dickens is being coy and mysterious, and everything is still quite shrouded in fog as to what exactly is going on. Which, naturally, makes one want to keep reading.
Dickens is fun...his writing is great, but in a different way than George Eliot. I'm not sure how to put that difference into words except maybe to say it's less flowery and more immediately descriptive, than reflective. And Dickens' characters are awesome...even the minor characters are really fleshed out with their own peculiarities. The book is (so far) like a menagerie of colorful characters.
I've read some Dickens before: "David Copperfield" in high school (loved it, and ended up reading it twice...I can still vividly remember some scenes after 25-30 years or so, such as the storm scene), "Great Expectations" (8th or 9th grade, probably, and I have little memory of it), and "A Tale of Two Cities" (read it maybe 10 years ago). If "Bleak House" comes anywhere close to bringing me the enjoyment that "David Copperfield" did, then I will be a very happy man.
One final note: I'm traveling to London this week! I haven't been there before (or anywhere else in Europe for that matter), so I'm looking forward to it immensely. Dickens should be appropriate reading for the trip, I should think. Although London of 2008 is, presumably, a vastly different place from the one of the 1850s.