I have found diminishing returns with Hardy's novels, I think. I really loved Far from the Madding Crowd, but The Mayor of Casterbridge exposed a lot of the artificiality and overwroughtness of Hardy's writing that I hadn't noticed in Crowd. Jude the Obscure was very good, and as heart-rendingly bleak as its reputation, but suffered from the same flaws. I didn't really enjoy The Return of the Native much at all, because Hardy's bloviating and melodrama seem discordant with such a cramped and narrow story.
Of course, cramped and narrow is half the point. Eustacia Vye, the beautiful and tempestuous heroine, wants badly to leave Egdon Heath, the blandest and most barren stretch of the Wessex countryside and live life on a larger scale. She thinks that she has found her ticket out in the figure of Clym Yeobright, the native of the title who has returned from studying in Paris. They fall in love--there is a nice scene where Eustacia takes place in a Christmas masque, trying to spy on this intriguing newcomer without herself being scene, though Yeobright sees through her costume with the benefit of some sort of kismet--but after they marry, she becomes disillusioned. Yeobright, for his part, only wants to found a provincial school in his homeland, not sweep his bride away to the Continent:
But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life--music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that are going on in the great arteries of the world? That was the shape of my youthful dream; but I did not get it. Yet I thought I saw the way to it in my Clym.
Complicating this story is Eustacia's former lover Damien Wildeve, who has recently married Yeobright's cousin Thomasin. (I didn't know this was the female version of Thomas, but I like it.) Typically, Wildeve's former passion for Eustacia is rekindled when she becomes attached to Yeobright, which causes all sorts of problems and misunderstandings.
The plot is confined mostly to this love-square, with Yeobright's disapproving mother added, and Diggory Venn the "reddleman," who has long been in love with Thomasin. A reddleman travels around selling the pigment that is used for marking sheep, and consequently is often covered in red himself, and has a strange mystical presence because of it. Venn himself is sort of otherworldly. His love for Thomasin drives him, not to undermine her marriage to Wildeve, but to endeavor tirelessly to reconcile their relationship that she might be happy and not dishonored. His inherent goodness is a contrast to the underhandedness of Wildeve, the self-absorption of Eustacia, and even to the well-intentioned foolishness of Yeobright. He's the best part of the book, and an powerful reproach to the idea that "good" characters are boring and "evil" characters the most interesting or complex. The Return of the Native could have used more of him.