“Nobody could look at you and not want to stand up and face what is coming.”

Holy crud, people, it finally happened.  Two characters in In This Our Life had a real conversation—a talk in which they did not say everything a novelist could wittily think up for them to say given all the time in the world, a talk in which their moments of candor are really vulnerable and even unexpected, a talk that does not simply reveal the next nine plot twists without either of the characters figuring them out.  It comes almost 250 pages into a novel that is a little under 500 in total, so it’s much too late in the game to salvage the book’s reputation with me entirely.  But it’s a start.

Here’s what’s up—Roy (whose husband, Peter, has left her) and Craig (the man who was engaged to Roy’s sister, Stanley, until Stanley left him in the lurch to run off with Peter) have been seeing more of each other, and this point in the book is the first time we’ve gone off and actually followed them into the world.  They’re an odd pair in some ways—Roy is ridiculously sensible, to a fault, really, a hard-headed gal who buries her emotions and who initially finds Craig a bit frivolous.  Craig, on the other hand, is a passionate idealist, the sort of fellow who attends lecture series and political rallies and talks about fighting the capitalist plutocrats.  They initially share nothing other than their status as survivors, crawling away from the blast zone that was Roy’s marriage and Craig’s near-marriage.  But they’re coming to love each other in a fragile, fractious way that feels really honest, and their conversation reveals it—Craig singing out some idealism about how the two of them could have a real marriage that they could both rely on (one of his remarks is this post’s title), and Roy smacking him down out of an intriguing mixture of practicality and fear of her own feelings.  They stop on their drive and have a talk with a simple fellow who farms out in the sticks, and runs a filling station on the highway to make a little cash for seed-money.  Roy remarks on Craig’s easy ability to relate to working men, and reflects inwardly about what it reveals about Craig (and how it contrasts with other aspects of his personality).  Ultimately their conversation doesn’t really resolve their underlying tensions—some promises are made, but not really binding ones, and both of them aren’t playing all their cards just yet.

Where the heck was this author for the last 248 pages?

What’s maybe most strange is that her early dialogue is full of over-shares and characters being much too forthcoming, in ways no person ever really is even with their closest loved ones, but now that Roy and Craig really have developed an intimate relationship (intimate emotionally—not physically, not yet at least), we finally get a dialogue where people are holding back and behaving cautiously.  There’s not much else to say right now—the other subplots are either terrible (in the name of all that is holy, will Asa just leave his terrible wife and go be with his friend’s widow who actually treats him like a human being? those wheels have been spinning for hundreds of pages without getting ANYWHERE) or almost forgotten (the poor young black man, Parry Clay, is finally re-emerging thanks to a commitment Craig is making towards Parry’s education, but I swear we’ve seen the kid for maybe 2 pages of the last 180).  There isn’t really a novel here worth reading.  But I at last know, at least, that Ellen Glasgow did have the talent available to her to write something decent, which reduces a little of my ire at the selection of this novel.  Depending on how much more of that she can bring to the surface, this book may climb out of the most wretched depths of my ranking of the Pulitzer winners.  Grapes of Wrath this ain’t, though, and frankly it would take a lot of work for it to rise even to the level of Arrowsmith.  Onward and (hopefully) upward.

“Who in the world are you?”

Alice Adams poses this question to herself in the mirror, and understandably so.  She’s a hard character to figure–an appealing one, I’m increasingly finding, but also one that’s hard to take seriously.  Her combination of pathological lying (almost all of which is aimed at the apparently eligible and infatuated Mr. Russell) with remarkably blunt honesty (again, directed primarily at a young man seemingly bewitched by her) is fun to read, but not easy to combine into a real young woman.  There’s some good stuff in this novel, mostly Alice’s increasing ability to open the eyes of Arthur Russell to the realities of life in town while simultaneously flirting in expert fashion.  It’s enjoyable to read their dialogues, although trouble is surely coming—she can’t keep lying to him without getting caught, and I don’t see this ending well.  Still, I give Tarkington credit: this is a much more believable relationship than Georgie Minafer had with Lucy.  He’s a capable enough writer in short bursts.  It’s the long haul that reveals his weaknesses in keeping the whole story together.

And while there’s more depth to Alice’s parents than I’d first seen, they really are a sort of second-rate Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (from Austen’s P&P).  Mr. Adams has all of Mr. Bennet’s long-suffering aggravation but with none of the wit and edge that makes Austen’s character clever and amusing.  And Mrs. Adams has all of Mrs. Bennet’s wheedling and passive-aggressive bullying, but with a total detachment from reality (and, frankly, a nearly-unhinged emotional life that overwhelms conversations) that makes her impossible to conduct a conversation with.  Every chat these two have starts out as a promising tactical combat of words, but quickly degenerates to a grating and unbearable weep-fest.

Overall, this is far better than I’d feared, given my earlier experiences with Tarkington, but still not so strong that I can see how a Pulitzer committee that chose Wharton the previous year managed to select this as a follow-up.  There just doesn’t seem to be much depth to the story.  I’m only half-way through, though, so we’ll see if things take a turn downstream.