What is most grippingly terrible about the above quotation is that it is spoken by Anson Pentland to his wife Olivia at the end of a very strained exchange…and that Olivia was born Olivia McConnell, to a Scotch-Irish family of wealth but not status, not a status that a Pentland would ever acknowledge as equal to theirs. The cold hatred he is capable of wielding against his wife is intense to read, and their conversation as a whole (in which Olivia finally allows herself to say many things she’s longed to—about the Pentlands, about Anson’s aging father and his lovelife, about propriety) is really well done. My only complaint is that it comes too early: Bromfield hasn’t yet established the dynamic between the two characters, and so Olivia’s willingness to transgress implicit boundaries is something the third-person narrator has to keep explaining along the way. It would have been far better to make this the third or fourth exchange between the characters, after we’ve seen Olivia bite her tongue until she can’t stand it any longer.
So, so far, Bromfield reveals himself to be handy with dialogue and characterization, but to be a little unsteady when it comes to pacing…cause for some optimism, I think. I like the larger view he’s taking of this little world…it’s not society New York, but rather the shifting world of the small New England town of Durham, where the Pentlands have long “ruled” socially, but that rule is coming to an end. It is “early Autumn” indeed…late Autumn, more like. The old Congregationalist church is long since gone, and in its place, the feeble ties the Pentlands (and the other old families) have forged to Unitarians and Episcopalians are getting swept aside by an influx of Catholics. The vaunted “Protestant work ethic” of the New England Puritans seems in short supply. The true industriousness of the town is now a “Catholic work ethic”—hard-working immmigrants from Poland and Austria-Hungary building lives for themselves, and prosperous Boston Irish families like the O’Haras sweeping in to buy old manors and make them lively again. Bromfield is good at showing the village’s changes through the eyes of Olivia, who is an insider that’s never really been let “inside”. Given my bias (reading these, as I am, with a strong interest in what they reveal about the country at the time), this deep immersion into the setting is really great. I hope he’s laying groundwork to do something with it, since there’s a lot of possibility in what Bromfield is describing.
And I should note that we have our first cross-reference of the journey thus far—Olivia, in remembering her globe-trotting mother (whose widowhood was apparently a long series of transatlantic trips before her death in an Italian village stranded Olivia with an insufferable aunt), reflects that she envisioned her mother “less as a real person than a character out of a novel by Mrs. Wharton.” This (combined with a note that Olivia’s aunt “talked incessantly of the plush, camphor-smelling splendor of a New York which no longer existed“) sets me up for an interesting perspective. Bromfield seems to suggest that his novel will tell the truths around the edges of a more “unreal” society life described by Wharton. It’s a big target to take on, and I’m not convinced he’s got the chops to actually do this. But ambition isn’t a bad thing, and we’ve started well enough that I’m willing to believe in his project for now. I’m perhaps 1/6 of the way into the novel, though, and I’m not convinced yet whose story this is, or where it’s going…hopefully clearer indications appear soon.