“Not for anything in the world would she exchange her lot for her mother’s.”

I’ve been a bit quiet about In This Our Life, Ellen Glasgow’s soap-operatic look into the sordid (but not especially compelling) lives of a down-on-their-luck family from somewhere in the Upper South (Virginia?), and that’s for two reasons.  One is that I’ve been busy enough (and uninterested enough in the book) that I haven’t made a ton of progress on it, although recently I’ve gotten further in, close to the book’s half-way point.  The other is that it’s hard to say much about the book, which is largely failing to be bad in an interesting way.

The main focus of the plot, which I addressed myself to earlier, is on the relationship of the father, Asa Timberlake, to his daughters, Roy and Stanley, which is strained by his inability to understand this wild and unconventional young generation, and by the weird fact that although it’s absolutely crystal clear from the information available that Stanley will ditch her fiancé and run off with Roy’s husband, no one (least of all Asa) seems to see it coming.  The only secondary plot of note is about a young African-American man named Parry, who is ambitious and whose skin is very light in color, and his attempts to get Asa’s family’s support as he intends to make something of himself (Parry is associated with the family’s long-time black servant, Virgie, and may I think come from a family that the Timberlakes once owned).  Veterans of this blog will recognize, I think, that the first plot is associated in some ways with Early Autumn, 1927’s winner which reflects on infidelity and fidelity over a couple of generations of a down-on-their-luck family in New England, and a woman’s relationship to her daughter.  And the second plot might as well be carbon-copied (at least at this summary level) from the relationship between Toussaint Vaiden and Colonel Miltiades Vaiden in 1933’s winner, The Store.  Glasgow hasn’t done a bunch with either plot at this point—Stanley has, at least, run off with Roy’s husband, so now the cat’s out of the bag, but it’s not clear she has any notion of what to do about this or where to go now that the tension has been set loose.  Parry, poor soul, just keeps showing up to ask a white man for help, and gets some nonsense—in some cases, nonsensically kind but useless suggestions about “helping if I can” when the speaker clearly can’t, and in other cases nonsensically racist and condescending crap like “there are plenty of white lawyers to help black folks in trouble if they haven’t done any wrong, so why get uppity notions about being a lawyer when you can have a happy life as a postman or something?”  The wheels are spinning for characters and reader alike.  Given that, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on why the plots aren’t working here, in a book that will avoid the bottom spots on my list only by mostly avoiding crass offensiveness, when they worked moderately to very well in two books that currently rank 5th and 8th out of 22 (soon to be 23) Pulitzer winners.

en:Louis Bromfield photographed by en:Carl Van...

Hey, Louis, is there any chance you could come in for a re-write? I’m losing steam with this one, man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To take Early Autumn in hand first—the lesser of my two “good” examples—I think what Glasgow is missing is a sense of context and broader significance.  In Louis Bromfield‘s book, I got the sense that I was seeing events that went beyond the family in question (in his case, the Pentlands): their diminishing social stature was tied (however subtly) to changes in America and the region they lived in, and the family’s sense of itself and its history helped add a certain grandeur (however decaying) to the anxieties of the older generations as they dealt with the family chaos.  Conversations between characters add to what we already know about the situation as people reveal (or conceal) their emotions in recognizably human fashion, and when in the later stages of the novel the characters confront each other to express hard truths about love and their relationships to each other, I felt the talk was somehow “earned” by having been built up to.  Glasgow’s book, by comparison, gives us a Timberlake family whose moorings are unclear—there’s a lot of talk about wealth in the book, and it opens with Asa looking forlornly at his family’s old home, now lost to their poverty, but none of the characters seem to have walked away with any ideas about the family and what it means to be a Timberlake.  The book (for the sake of the plot) contrives at some pre-existing tensions and relationships but they all feel hollow—I can’t believe that the characters I see in front of me could believably have behaved in the past in such a way as to make the backstory real.  As a result, all the back-and-forth between Asa’s generation and Roy and Stanley’s feels odd—the parents and elders don’t feel like they have much added perspective (other than commenting all the time about “how different these young people are!”) and the young people seem sometimes terribly old.  I think Glasgow is driving at some pretty heavy attacks on modernity and what it does to love and youth (especially for these poor helpless young women, if I may paraphrase the vibe I’m getting from her), but it’s never clear what’s making all this happen, or where these people came from.  Furthermore, as I’ve complained before, the characters wear everything on their sleeves, saying almost everything they might be thinking out loud and to the people they feel it towards—the only exception being explicit mention of the affair between Stanley and Peter.  Anyway, since no human being actually acts this way all of the time, and most of us never act this way more than 5% of the time, it’s irritating to navigate through, since the characters feel like felt puppets bobbing their way through a script.  Some parts of the script are plausibly interesting—Roy, for example, and her feelings about the way she wishes people would treat her after her husband runs off with her sister—but I can’t buy into the emotions because they don’t feel authentic.  Bromfield’s novel is, oddly enough, able to make me feel far more by telling me far less.

T. S. Stribling‘s book, The Store, really is the book Glasgow wanted to write, although it’s much smarter about race than hers is, with livelier characters and more complicated and interesting interpersonal relationships.  The Vaidens of Stribling’s book, though, have fallen down from somewhere specific, and it’s easy to see how that’s affected them and what it pushes them to do.  Even the relationship between the Colonel and his wife (one of the few things I complained about with this book) is more nuanced than Asa’s relationship with his wife, Lavinia—at least I am forced to work out their relationship to each other and try to make sense of it, rather than read the narrator flatly telling me things like “Asa no longer loved his wife, and could not believe that he ever had, but now adopted an attitude towards her as of a stranger, although one who felt obligated to care for her.”  I mean, what’s the point of writing a book when you can give it all to me in synopsis form?  Anyway, to dial in on the racial subplot in Glasgow’s novel and contrast it with Stribling, Stribling makes the world of freed slaves and their descendants a living one.  People have fights with each other, are complex enough to be both wise and foolish, saintly and sinful, and ultimately it’s not always clear how we’re supposed to take them.  Toussaint Vaiden, the upwardly mobile, light-skinned black man of Stribling’s novel, is so ambitious as to be almost a scoundrel in some ways, but his arrogance and confidence make sense because of who he is and where he comes from, and they do not diminish the sympathy his character rightly gets from the reader in the novel’s tragic conclusion.  By comparison, Glasgow has given us a poor man’s copy in the figure of Parry Clay—a young black man who never loses his temper or speaks out of turn, who studies hard and merely needs a loan (which he will pay back! every penny!) to get his schooling to become a lawyer.  Parry never feels as urgent as Toussaint, and he arises out of almost nowhere in Glasgow’s novel, which treats the African-American characters as a real sideline—despite this novel being set 40ish years after Stribling’s, the black characters seem more obsessed with the lives of the white family they know, and more unmoored from any larger African-American community, and it feels like laziness (or impoverished imagination) on the part of the author, rather than any kind of real statement about the fracturing of communities, etc.

Anyway, I could go on, but given that I’m comparing a novel no one has read to two other novels no one has read, this is more for my benefit than anyone else’s, I suppose!  All I really need to do for those of you who, for reasons best known to yourselves, follow my aimless path through the Pulitzers is to tell you that I’ve read another 100 pages or so of a book I wish I didn’t have to read, and that once I’ve read another 300 pages or so, I’ll never have to pick it up again.  I may post again on this one if I manage to get anywhere worth relating, but something tells me I may just take my medicine as fast as I can and then write a review when all’s said and done.

1927: Early Autumn, by Louis Bromfield

Literary Style:

I know I’d suggested there would be another post before this review, but I got swept up in the book and raced to the finish (being home sick plays a role in that, I think).  There’s a lot to say about where the book took me in the end, but I’ll try to keep it at least relatively brief.

Bromfield is very good at a lot of things, which makes the book a really excellent reading experience.  He’s at his best, I think, in long conversations between two characters, in which both are saying things that are difficult to say.  That sense of breathlessness, of revelation and reluctance, is really well developed.  His one drawback here, which I’ve mentioned before, is that Bromfield has a tendency to show rather than tell, at times—he doesn’t always do the work he needs to do to make it clear that someone is behaving out of character, or to reveal a side of someone that they would rather have kept hidden.  And so he ends up telling us that this is happening, or that a character notices it…not terrible, but certainly worse than letting us see and feel it ourselves.

And in many other ways this book is also a real work of art—characters are not, in fact, what they seem to be, and yet they feel very real throughout.  The plot moves rapidly and in ways not always easy to anticipate.  There is a real richness to Olivia Pentland, in particular, and Bromfield really gives her a full range of emotions and impulses that makes it wonderful to stay at her side through some very difficult patches.

In the end, the book has much more to say than I would have expected about duty, and about belief, and love (in a strange way).  By the end of the book, despite my certainty that this was a story about Olivia and Michael O’Hara (the man who loves her), or Olivia and Anson Pentland (her cold yet possessive husband), it seems it was a story about Olivia and her father-in-law, John Pentland.  Bromfield lures you in with the promise of a romance, but he’s after something much harder to put into words than that.  He makes it seem obvious, at the beginning, that this is an old and withered family, and that the outsiders in this place are much better and wiser people than the dusty old Pentlands…but in the end Bromfield lays that bare, also.

I liked that approach, personally—Olivia, in the end, finds herself to be a different person than she might’ve guessed along the way.  She certainly finds herself with a different impression of the people around her, even those people she was most certain in her judgments about.  I like the fact, perhaps most of all, that I could not remotely guess what would have happened next, if the novel had gone on even one more page, and yet I reach the end with a strange sense of hope.  Strange, I think, in part because there is something happy about death in the book—death being preferable to an existence characterized, as Bromfield says at one point, by “living only through watching others live”.  I don’t want to overinterpret the book’s title, but I wonder if there is a way to see this as an inevitable Autumn that comes before the Spring—a dying that is better than clinging to life because the death clears the world for what will come, and provides ground in which to be reborn.

This book isn’t, in the end, a masterpiece like Wharton’s novel (that still ranks, for me, atop the Pulitzer pile), but I think it does more than any book I’ve yet read to confront what it is that America was losing in the 20th Century, and how it was deceiving itself as it turned slowly into modernity.  This is not the whole picture, of course—there are many wonderful things ahead, in 1927—but what was lost is something that is too easy to worship (as Tarkington does) or to dismiss (as someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald did, I think), and Bromfield finds the right tone in seeing it for what it was, and why it would die.  A very lovely story, in the end, and a melancholy one—but beautiful even in its sadness.

Historical Insight:

As I just noted, this book does a wonderful job of getting into the reality of a fading “high society” and the rise of whatever the 1920s would bring.  The book, in a sense, picks up where The Age of Innocence left off, exploring the lives of old people who feel they missed their chances at love, and the younger generation whose passion runs away with them.  It does a better job with the old folks than the young—I wouldn’t read this book to explore “what it was like to be a flapper”—but it’s so good with those older generations that it’s well worth the read, independent of plot and style, for a chance to see into a fading New England village, and the dying old family that sees it as their birthright.

Review:

I have to give this a “you ought to read this book”.  It’s not quite as definitive as The Age Of Innocence, which I (as I recall) said you really had to read, no excuses allowed.  It’s a very good book, but no one would mistake this novel for “The Great American Novel”…it stumbles often enough to show Bromfield’s limitations, though thankfully it doesn’t stumble often.  I’d rank it, though, in the top 3 of the Pulitzers I’ve read, and perhaps at #2—I hope some of you read it, and comment here, as I’d love to hear other takes on the book.  I may be a little too taken with old New England families, after all!

The Last Word:

Bromfield leaves many excellent passages at the end of the book, but I think it’s best to finish with a piece of a strained conversation between Olivia and her husband, Anson.  Many things have happened which I’m reluctant to reveal (lest I spoil the plot), but I can at least give this much context—the family has been through a very difficult time, there’s a sense that scandal (of one type or another) may ruin them entirely, and Anson’s worldview is being thoroughly challenged by his wife, as we see here (all the ellipses . . . are in the original):

“Let’s leave the gentleman out of it, Anson,” she said.  “I’m weary of hearing what gentlemen do and do not do. I want you to act as yourself, as Anson Pentland, and not as you think you ought to act.  Let’s be honest.  You know you married me only because you had to marry someone . . . and I . . . I wasn’t actually disreputable, even, as you remind me, if my father was shanty Irish.  And  . . . let’s be just too.  I married you because I was alone and frightened and wanted to escape a horrible life with Aunt Alice.  . . . I wanted a home.  That was it, wasn’t it?  We are both guilty, but that doesn’t change the reality in the least.  No, I fancy you practised loving me through a sense of duty.  You tried it as long as you could and you hated it always.  Oh, I’ve known what was going on.  I’ve been learning ever since I came to Pentlands for the first time.”

He was regarding her now with a fixed expression of horrid fascination; he was perhaps even dazed at the sound of her voice, slowly, resolutely, tearing aside all the veils of pretense which had made their life possible for so long.  He kept mumbling, “How can you talk this way?  How can you say such things?”

Slowly, terribly, she went on and on: “We’re both guilty . . . and it’s been a failure, from the very start.  I’ve tried to do my best and perhaps sometimes I’ve failed.  I’ve tried to be a good mother . . . and now that Sybil is grown and Jack . . . is dead, I want a chance at freedom.  I’m still young enough to want to live a little before it is too late.”

“It was like a thing ordained, and life with him would be exciting, a thrilling affair.”

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.

“For a moment he had come very near to being a husband who might interest his wife.”

The subject of that sentence, of course, is Anson Pentland, Olivia’s bitter and dried-up husband, seemingly old despite being in his 40s with so much life still ahead of him.  But Bromfield’s only using him to reveal aspects of Olivia’s character—to show what matters to her and what doesn’t, to open a window into what her life has been like thus far.  The underlying sense is that Anson has not been abusive or cruel to her (with perhaps the exception of a conversation I’ve quoted in a previous post)…it’s hard to see, however, that he’s ever given her a minute of joy or love.  How they married is beyond me.

The interest O’Hara felt for Olivia (and had expressed to her sister-in-law, Sabine) has finally come to her attention.  At a dreadful dinner party thrown by Sabine, Olivia escaped stultifying after-dinner conversation by slipping out into the yard, where she could see the garden, and the distant dunes, and the white fringe of the ocean surf.  She sat there in the twilight and then O’Hara is suddenly next to her, leaning on the tree that overhangs the stone bench she’s seated on.  They have a wonderfully breathless conversation—Bromfield paces things beautifully to allow O’Hara to express his interest at the right moment, and for Olivia to respond just as she should (that is, she neither storms off as though Elizabeth Bennett, nor does she leap into the arms of the man as though the star of a Harlequin novel).  She is uncertain but flattered; he is pleasant and calm.  The conversation continues with a really delightful sense of tension (will she agree to see him? will she finally get up and go?), and then it drifts, almost as though waking out of a dream, until they’re back inside and nothing is settled.  He’s very good, honestly—no beautifully quotable lines, but great pacing and character development.  In the end, he hasn’t had to reveal much about either character for me to want to see where this goes.

And I haven’t done much to call attention to allusions, but I have to point this out.  The whole conversation between Olivia and O’Hara takes place outdoors.  Olivia is separated from her husband.  She remains seated beneath the tree—an apple tree.  He stands/leans against that tree, so that to address him she’s looking up into the apple boughs.  Not only are they in the garden, but it’s a brand-new garden (one O’Hara has had planted, a fact he calls attention to).  Now, I don’t know what is meant by all this Eden symbolism.  O’Hara, in this symbolic conversation, is both God (creator of the Garden) and the Devil (the tempter of the woman)…what can we do with that?  Olivia is tempted a little by the offer, but ultimately leaves the garden without having given in (though she does eventually go riding with O’Hara, in the company of Sybil, her daughter; and she does play bridge with him, as his partner, at Sabine’s house later that summer).  So I can’t say how to interpret this (if, on the basis of this description, you have a theory, I’d love to hear it!), but I think it is clearly intentional.

There are more things brewing.  Olivia’s sickly son, Jack, who was never expected to live to adulthood, has passed in a strangely unemotional way (though there is a nice scene at the deathbed, with Olivia alone).  And inexplicable things are happening—the same night that Olivia hears O’Hara profess his love for her, she sees her groom (that is, the servant who cares for the horses) in a secret woodland tryst with a young woman (he runs away when the lights of her motorcar land upon them), and late that night, she sees her mother-in-law, the insane invalid, strangely lucid.  Her mother-in-law climbs into the attic in search of something she hid there that will “save them all” but she can’t remember what it is or where she put it.  She tells Olivia she trusts her.  And then the nurse comes rushing in to drag the invalid back to her room, apologizing and explaining that she’d just run downstairs for some coffee….but Olivia notices later that the nurse’s dressing gown is on over the outfit she would normally wear outdoors for a visit to town.  Why would Miss Egan be so dressed up in the wee hours of the morning?  I like the way Bromfield’s writing this book, and I think it’s going somewhere interesting–at last, another Pulitzer discovery! (I hope.)

“She experienced a sudden intoxicating sense of power, of having all the tools at hand, of being the dea ex machina of the calamity.”

Sabine, the outsider returned to Durham after decades away, is realizing her pivotal opportunity to break open the little world of the Pentlands…whether or not she’ll take the chance is hard to guess.  What opportunity?  I’ll explain in a moment.

Bromfield’s growing on me as an author.  He gives Olivia Pentland some really rich relationships—her relationship to her husband is really rocky (as I mentioned in the last post), but her relationship to her father-in-law is very close.  It’s a strange relationship, not loving so much as trusting.  Old John Pentland can’t bring himself to trust much of anyone, but when there are decisions to be made, he doesn’t turn to his sister or his son, but rather to his daughter-in-law, the Irish girl who may never belong but whose strength it seems the family could not do without.  Bromfield is good at the slow reveal with Old John…we know from the beginning that it’s a bit scandalous that he shows so much attention to a local woman he’s been friends with for years (they play cards together).  It seemed at first like it was a class issue—no Pentland ought to be associating with someone low, but no one can challenge Old John, the paterfamilias.  But occasional off-handed mentions of “her”, and needing to care for “her”, build a realization that John’s wife is still living…that she has lived out the last 20 or 30 years as an invalid, so mentally unstable that the family lives in fear of having to have her committed.  And yet John is no Mr. Rochester.  He visits his wife every morning, despite her inability to connect with him or have a meaningful conversation.  And then he goes for a ride on his cantankerous old mare, and perhaps looks in on that woman friend of his, old Mrs. Soames.  I get the sense that nothing has ever happened between them; that nothing ever could happen.  It’s an interesting scenario.

And this is not the only interesting scenario.  Briefly, the power alluded to at the beginning of this post, the power Sabine has, relates to the Boston Irish O’Hara, who has bought Sabine’s old family home and refurbished it.  He scandalizes good old members of society (like Aunt Cassie, who is the most vocal defender of the Pentland family honor) simply by being.  Anson Pentland is horrified that O’Hara is taking an interest in Anson and Olivia’s daughter, Sybil, by riding with her in the afternoons—he wants it stopped.  But O’Hara has revealed to Sabine that what really interests him is the radiant and lively Olivia Pentland: he is in love, he says, and he wants Sabine to help him find a chance to talk with Olivia alone.  She wonders what to do—she asks him if this is quite moral, and of course he cannot answer yes, but only that he’d thought she would understand.

I like where the book has taken me so far.  It’s not The Age Of Innocence, which was about whether a person can escape this kind of rule-bound confining society.  It wants to explore something else…how long these societies can last, burdened under the weight of hypocrisy and secrecy.  If John runs off with Mrs. Soames, and Olivia with O’Hara, that will be the end of whatever “Durham society” has been for centuries, and poor old Aunt Cassie will probably keel over into an early grave.  But I think society’s stronger than that, and I wonder how these tensions will play out.  Bromfield’s got me hooked—I want to know what happens next.

“I will not have my daughter marry a shanty Irishman . . . there is enough of that in the family.”

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.

“There was a ball in the old Pentland house because for the first time in nearly forty years there was a young girl in the family to be introduced to the polite world of Boston and to the elect who had been asked to come on from New York and Philadelphia.”

So begins Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn, the 1927 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.  A bit uninspired, no?  It is, at least, not a very engaging or intriguing way to begin.  And what follows is, well, not entirely original.

It seems this world will revolve around the women associated with a fading New England family, whose high opinion of themselves may once have been warranted but is slowly becoming a groundless affectation.  We have them in pairs, at present—old Aunt Cassie and her simpleton of a companion, Miss Peavey; Sabine Callendar, a worldly middle-aged woman and the former ward of Aunt Cassie, and Sabine’s cousin (?), the graceful and ladylike Olivia Pentland; and lastly, the girl for whom the ball is given, Olivia’s daughter, Sybil, home from schooling in Paris, and her cousin (?) Therese Callendar, who is also being introduced to “Durham society” as she spends the summer at Pentlands.  At the present it feels a bit like a poor man’s Edith Wharton—lots of society conversation and perceived mis-steps, a handsome convention-flouting woman who’s been away for twenty years and is now returned to scandalize folk just a little, the sense that, having escaped society (as Sybil and both Callendars have) it is impossible to return to it on its own terms.  It’s not that this is bad fodder for a novel, but given that I’ve read an excellent example of one already, I’m wondering what Bromfield will do to mix things up.

And I’m a bit concerned.  On page 4, he refers to a local clergyman, Bishop Smallwood, and notes parenthetically that Sabine calls him “Apostle to the Genteel”.  Three or four pages later, in listing guests leaving the party, he mentions Bishop Smallwood…and again notes parenthetically that Sabine calls him “Apostle to the Genteel”.  So we have two options: one, he had no idea he repeated the exact same information within several pages, which suggests to me that our author and/or his editor were asleep at the switch, or else two, he actually thought that joke was funny enough to repeat twice in the first ten pages of his novel.  I don’t think either prospect is comforting.  And so far Louis has shown a tendency to caricature more than character.  Aunt Cassie and Miss Peavey are fat, old, disapproving types, who are childless and don’t seem to care much for the new generation.  Cassie as the New England dowager really feels quite cliche, thus far.  When I compare them in my head to Mrs. Manson Mingott, who was much more than she seemed…but I probably should spend less time dredging up memories of Wharton, if I’m going to enjoy this book.  I’m not sure it won’t be a pleasant read, and I’ll hold out hope for that.  And then may 1928 rescue me from Midwestern farm life and big city society life, since between the two, I don’t know how much more I can take.