Yes, that’s right. After taking a year on the last novel, this one I drop in two weeks flat. Says something about it, I reckon, and I’ll try to illuminate that a bit in the review below.
I don’t want to savage Barnes. This wasn’t a terrible novel. It just never really gave me much reason to connect with it—it’s the novel I feared I was going to suffer through when I began The Age of Innocence, which remains the one true classic I’ve discovered on this quest thus far. What I mean by that is this: I feared (with Wharton’s novel) that this high society narrative would feel really distant and unimportant. Hundreds of pages of who might be dancing with who, and whether or not Grandfather would approve of, you know, a family from that side of 57th Street, and how likely it is that young Bryant is sneaking around behind his wife’s back, oh he wouldn’t, oh he might, oh dear well what will the bridge club think of his mother now? There are people who can’t stand Wharton or Jane Austen for this very reason—they ask why on earth it matters. And they’re wrong about Wharton and Austen because those two ladies, masters of craft and human foible, make the setting a mere structure on which to present real truths about who people really are. They make the dances important whether or not we like ballgowns, because the characters are engaged in something serious that involves real feelings of love and anxiety and the desire for safety (and the desire for danger).
Barnes isn’t a craftswoman of their caliber, and for this reason the novel descended for me into a long slow trudge through a variety of social scenes and murmured disapprovals and generational misunderstandings that frankly didn’t resonate for me at all. I can imagine how I or my friends would feel when facing things like this—the death of an aging parent, the possibility that my child is about to destroy a family, etc.—but the novel won’t let me feel it along with the characters. I remain a bit baffled by them. Barnes is too interested in plot (and there is a ton of it in this novel) to recognize that a plot about rich people having the problems that arise from behaving like petulant children…well, that plot is bound not to connect with a lot of folks. It must have reached the Pulitzer Board in 1931, but it missed me by a country mile and I can’t imagine it would appeal to many folks in a modern audience.
The book attempts, to its credit, to try and handle the questions of marriage and fidelity on some kind of deeper level, but Barnes is so crazy with driving every plot forward that she doesn’t strike a good final chord on any of it. We’re left believing that some people should stay with their husbands and some shouldn’t. And that’s probably a reasonable sentiment, but it hardly warrants a 600 page novel. Barnes tries to say more than this, but she keeps circling back around on herself, like someone who can see every side of the argument and really doesn’t know what to think. It’s fine to be that person, but when that person joins the conversation mid-argument and talks in circles, all it does is frustrate everyone actually invested in getting to a resolution. I don’t demand that every novel “say something”. But if it’s not going to “say something”, I think it either needs to achieve artistic worth by being written artfully or by creating an open space into which I’m invited to speak artfully. Barnes doesn’t have the skill for the former or, seemingly, any clue about what it would be like to achieve the latter.
So we’re left with a novel that drives through decades of plot, connecting us to a lot of families and situations and tense conversations, and introduces us to a great many characters (some of whom I’d like to know better, though not many). It is less racist than you’d expect, and may be about the most progressive novel I’ve read yet in allowing women to be intelligent and independent and high-achieving: these are not small things, and I’m pleased they were present. In the end, though, I couldn’t say why anyone not on a misguided personal Pulitzer quest should read it, particularly. You could idle away a nice summer day or two reading it, and the pages would turn at a reasonable enough pace. A month later, you’d be hard-pressed to name anyone or any event in it, particularly. It attempts something grander—events that recur in each generation but which play out very differently, character arcs that intertwine in at least mildly unexpected ways—but it’s usually unsuccessful. Barnes has sufficient skill to write a good plot-heavy pulp novel, and I hope she did. She wasn’t ready in 1931 to create art, though, and I’m disappointed that a novel like this took home a prize.
This is where Barnes does a lot to redeem herself for me. I think she does have a good eye for setting—at the very least, she chose some good settings to catch the interest of someone like me, and this skill (along with the plot) kept me going through an otherwise forgettable novel. She is great with the city of Chicago: from 1890 to 1930, you see the city grow and change. She’s meticulous in detailing how the Wards’ neighborhood transitions from little houses and yards to incredible skyscrapers (the quiet Pine Street on which Jane Ward grows up is widened and turned into Michigan Avenue, the city’s famous “Magnificent Mile”). She does a lot to consider how the city changes, and the people change with it. Barnes hits a lot on the differences between generations—especially between the young folks of the “Gay ’90s” and the young folks of the “Roaring Twenties”—and I think at least occasionally she’s giving some useful insights into how Americans saw themselves (and things like “duty” and “honor”) differently in only a couple of decades. Certainly it’s the first novel I’ve had in a while that really made me conscious of how it would have felt to watch the country growing in those years. I think this was a fairly minor purpose of Barnes’s, but the older this novel gets, the more important I think that perspective will be. Certainly I was glad it was here, and learned a little (especially about Chicago’s history) that I’m glad to have encountered.
I hemmed and hawed over how to resolve my feelings about the novel, and have settled on the rating “I Can’t Quite Recommend This Book”. If you picked it up, I have a feeling you could get into it, especially if you were interested in America at the turn of the 20th Century (or Chicago in particular). You’d bob along, irritated at times that the novel wasn’t really exploring ideas very much, increasingly aware that you just weren’t that invested in these characters and their lives, gradually convinced that you were reading mostly just to get to the end and then set it down. In the end you’d wonder why you spent a big chunk of hours on the novel…you could just as easily have gotten your plot fix from a mystery or romance novel in a third of the time, and used the rest to read a great non-fiction book about the time period or setting. There’s something here, but given how limited reading time is for most of us, I can’t in good conscience suggest you spend some of it on this book.
The Last Word:
As usual, I give the novel’s author final say—in this case, feeling as I do about the novel, the choice is easy. I ignore any attempt to explore these characters (cardboard, most of them), and focus instead on my city, and a passage where I think Barnes is really good at getting her arms around something about Chicago. Jane Ward, in her late forties or early fifties, is driving through Chicago north of the Loop on her way from her old neighborhood back to her suburban home in the Skokie Valley, and as she looks out the window. the narrator gives us her thoughts:
“[Jane] rolled through the southern entrance of the park and out onto the stream-like bend of the Lake Shore Drive. It was a lovely street, she thought, edging that great, empty plane of blue and sparkling water. One of the loveliest city streets in the world. If it were in Paris, you would cross the ocean to see it. If it were in London, you would have heard of it all your life. If it were in Venice, the walls of the world’s art galleries would be hung with oils and water-colours and etchings of its felicities of tint and line. But here, in Chicago, no one paid much attention to it. The decorous row of Victorian houses, withdrawn in their lawns, were discreetly curtained against that dazzling wash of light and colour. Only the new, bare, skyscraping apartments, rising here and there flush from the pavement, seemed aware of the view. They cheapened it, they commercialized it, they exploited it, but at least they knew it was there.
The Oak Street Beach, as Jane rolled past it, looked like a Sorolla canvas in the mellow afternoon sunshine. The golden sands were streaked and slashed and spotted with brilliant splashes of colour. Bathers, in suits of every conceivable hue, were sunning themselves on the beach. Men, incredibly brown, were breasting the blue waves. Girls were shrieking with delight in the nearer breakers. Children were paddling in the shallows. Jane had known the end of Oak Street before the beach had been there. The curve of filled-in land to the south had created it. Oak Street used to end in a row of waterlogged pilings, held in place by blocks of white limestone. Pilings on which ragged fishermen had sat, with tin cans of bait and strings of little silver fish at their side. It seemed just a year or two to Jane since she had seen the end of Oak Street looking just like that.
‘Chicago,’ thought Jane solemnly, ‘makes you believe in Genesis. It makes you believe that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth.’”