This quotation describes Sybil’s enthusiasm for Jean, the son of a French man and an American woman, whom she met in Paris, fell hopelessly in love with, and has pursued since his arrival in Durham for a visit. But it also sheds light on her mother, Olivia, whose marriage to Anson Pentland seems to have been a thing ordained—but of course with Anson life has been and will be boring, a stultifying affair. O’Hara makes Olivia’s blood run hot, but she will never leave her husband for him. And her husband would never dream of inciting the scandal a divorce would bring, even if he discovered her wandering eye and straying heart. They’re an interesting pair of women.
It’s hard to say what Bromfield wants to draw out of the story, other than that he seems to be good at avoiding cliche. Sybil and Jean fall in love, but it’s obvious they’re doomed at the outset. They’re in love with an idealized vision of romance that each has embodied for the other during long months apart. If they do find a good relationship in the long run, it won’t have much to do with how they feel right now.
The character I’m most impressed by, though, is Olivia. It would be easy to make her into a “wronged woman” who casts her lot in with the rebels, thumbs her nose at the old fuddy-duddies, and dashes off into the moonlight with O’Hara. But she can’t be that woman, and luckily Bromfield knows it. He shows us the subtle changes of opinion in her. It’s clear that her acceptance of her marriage to Anson isn’t a bitter one—Anson’s inability to even contemplate divorce is part of his nature, his character, and always has been. She can no more resent him for it than she could resent a dog for barking or a bird for eating worms. And as time goes on, it’s fascinating to watch her move within the strained relationships all the Pentland women have with each other. Strangely, it’s the daring iconoclast, Sabine, that Olivia shuts out more and more, as she realizes she can’t trust Sabine’s discretion. And Aunt Cassie, the nosy busybody who infiltrates every family affair with her outmoded views of the world, transforms slowly into an object of pity, at least…and sometimes it seems Olivia is gentler still with a woman who was a victim of circumstance in many ways.
I like that kind of subtlety—Bromfield is not as good with language as Wharton, but I think his characters are almost as rich. And the plot he’s devised creates more ambiguity: when Olivia finally finds what her insane mother-in-law had “hidden” in the attic, a truth about the family is revealed. But as much as it alters Olivia’s sense of who they are and what it means to be a “Pentland”, she doesn’t share it with the others—she knows it would destroy her husband and her father-in-law to know the truth. And as time goes by, it’s clear that there is a strength that comes from being a “Pentland”, from having a sense of pride about the past and about the good work the family has built up in Durham. It raises interesting questions for me about family—as genealogists, my mother and I have found details from time to time that reveal less-than-positive sides of our family’s past. Is it right to dig them up? Is it right to share them with others? As much as we like to believe that “the truth sets you free”, I wonder: free from what? Olivia seems to think that the awful freedom she would give the Pentlands in revealing what she knows is a free-fall, a spiral into the unknown and a loss of identity. Is it somehow better to try to live up to the image that never existed, to be inspired by a dream because you think it is a reality?
I’ve cruised a long way in this book (though you wouldn’t know it by the number of posts—sorry, folks, grad school dominates life right now), and may only post once or twice more before a review, since I’m over 2/3 done. I don’t think the book is building to a big “message” at the end, but I really like it. I hope that feeling lasts, since it would be great to raise the average review on this site from the depths that The Able McLaughlins dragged it to.