“When I am depressed, I remember I am an Apley.”

All right, John Marquand, you’re starting to win me back as a reader: certainly the few chapters I’ve gone on to read in The Late George Apley have gone down much better than that first one did.  There’s a neat structure to the book—the weaving together of a bunch of letters and musings written down by the character of “George Apley” over his life means that issues can be examined from several angles at once.  It gives a lot of insight into how we change as we age, and I think there’s something fun about a novel reliant mostly on these invented documents for its material: fans of the epistolary novel will almost certainly like the approach, even though it’s not formatted in what I think of as the “traditional” epistolary novel format.

A major element in my revising opinion of the novel is the presence of the title character himself, the late George Apley, speaking through his letters and private papers.  He is a really nicely composed character—proud of his family and its history, a little able to view that past analytically (although also a bit naive about it), more emotionally connected to his childhood friends than to his children, in many ways.  His remarks are starting to build an image of Boston in my head, and I like the depth of historical detail in that image.  Little asides, like the fact that Julia Ward Howe (recently featured on this blog) was a friend of the family, or the interconnectedness of certain families in the history of Milton, Massachusetts, work well in my imagination, perhaps in part because I’ve spent a lot of time as an amateur genealogist tracing families with histories almost identical to the Apleys (my wife is descended from a number of early Puritan families, including at least one that I’m fairly sure settled in Milton, at least for a decade or two).  George is a complicated enough fellow that I’d rather stick with him: I’m afraid I still find Willing, the narrator of that first chapter and the character who is allegedly authoring the book, really plodding and fussy.  I think other novelists have been more willing to drop conceits like this for the story’s sake: Hawthorne, after building all that backstory for the narrator in “The Custom House”, doesn’t weigh down The Scarlet Letter too often with comments that call attention to “Hawthorne” the narrator, and Ishmael is somewhat famously absent from long stretches of Moby-Dick (and as much as I love him, it’s important that he is absent).  Marquand’s clinging a bit too much to Willing for my taste.

Custom House Street, Boston, Massachusetts. Bu...

The Custom House where Hawthorne wisely more or less abandoned his narrator character for the duration of The Scarlet Letter: right now I’d happily lock “Willing” in one of these offices. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am both fascinated and bored with the subject matter: the Pulitzers in this period are definitely dominated by the interests of the American upper class, particularly the old guard that had settled in certain parts of the country.  This novel, which focuses on the ties between generations and the changes impacting a reasonably proud and successful New England family, is treading a well-worn path.  I’ve seen some very similar ground covered pretty ably in Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn, covered not so ably in Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, and covered really quite badly (and with a Midwestern veneer, although the issues aren’t much affected) in Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons.  And a number of other novels in the 20 I’ve read so far tackle related ideas in similar contexts.  All of this is not to say that I’m closed off to what Marquand has to offer—after all, I voiced similar complaints about having to read “another farming novel” when I took on Now in November by Josephine Johnson, and I loved that book.  I just wish the Pulitzer Board had more interests than the noble American farmer and the difficulties faced by proud multi-generational upper middle class families in the modern world.  These are both rich areas for analysis, I grant you, but I’ve got a long list of Americas I want to encounter, and most of them are still waiting in the wings after the curtain’s fallen on Act I.  This is not a mark against Marquand so much as it’s a feeble protest to a board long dead.  Anyway, the one up-side of this is that I have some novels to use for comparison as I dig into George Apley’s life, which may help me reflect on it at more length.

The last comment I have is one of my lingering doubts—I can’t see yet where Marquand is tightening the novel into some sort of interesting or meaningful conflict.  What I’ve read so far is certainly going well, and investing me in the character of George Apley, but it seems rather meandering.  If Willing, our narrator/author figure, has some ambitions for injecting the story with a little life, I’m hoping those threads will start to become more apparent soon.  I don’t need an action film, but I do want to feel as though I’ve done more than just flip through a family album.  That’s the nagging doubt as I read—I am enjoying this, but I’d enjoy all these little details a lot more if they were true historical bits and pieces.  I’d happily read about the actual history of a New England family flung across the years, as expressed through diaries and letters preserved in attics.  Fiction’s advantage is that it can juxtapose these elements and moments in ways that the historian is prevented from doing (if she is at all scrupulous, that is), and I’m a touch worried that Marquand/Willing don’t have a solid enough plan for making those pieces work together.  But it’s still early enough that I’m suspending any kind of judgments on the matter—in the long run I’ll have more to say, for good or ill.  Here’s hoping the current upward trend in my estimation of the novel continues.


“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”

So begins the 1928 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder.  Yes, that Thornton Wilder, as in the author of one of the most performed high school plays ever, Our Town.  I’m afraid the authorial presence you get in Our Town surfaces early here, but more on that in a moment.

What I want to note first is that we have stepped outside of the United States for the first time in the history of the Pulitzer.  Okay, so Willa Cather took her hero for a stint overseas in World War I, and yes, some of the best moments in Arrowsmith consisted of an extended stretch in the Caribbean.  Before there has always been an American center to the novel—often a quintessentially American center—and Wilder at least has the daring to move outside that sphere for his setting.

The course of the novel is laid out pretty clearly from the beginning.  The collapse of the bridge was witnessed, we are told, by a Catholic missionary, Brother Juniper.  Brother Juniper is so convinced that God purposes all things that he decides to make a study of the five lives lost in the collapse of the bridge, since clearly their fates were foreordained.  He hopes, by careful examination, to prove God’s divine power to the “poor obstinate converts” he’s working with in Peru.  And, we are told, he believes he’s gotten to the bottom of the situation without ever understanding who the five people really were.  Our novel, then, will show what Brother Juniper did not see, and look into the question of whether human life is a fundamentally grim and pessimistic affair, or rather a beautiful (if subtle) mystery that connects us to a higher power.

This is a fascinating and promising premise for a novel—following five lives to a seemingly random and catastrophic death, seeking a clue in their details to the truth about the universe.  I’ll confess, it may be the best novel I’ve read yet, if we only consider how it plays as a paragraph (envision for a moment how The Age of Innocence would sound in a paragraph summary….I wouldn’t read it, on that basis—would you?).  But Wilder seems interested in writing this novel the way the Stage Manager narrated life in Grovers Corner.  The narrator refers to “you and I”, meaning me, the person reading the novel, and him—in fact he notes that a character doesn’t understand the things that “you and I” do.  We’re about one step from “dear reader” territory, here.  It’s possible to write an engaging story using that kind of narrator–the omniscient benevolent uncle, condescending slightly to the reader but in a good-humored way that makes you content with your cup of cocoa and the sweetly realized conclusions with their pinkish moral hues.  But I don’t think you can write a novel that examines the soul-scarring questions of mortality, fate, and free will in that voice.

I may be jumping the gun—Early Autumn, after all, began in not terribly promising fashion, and proved to be a really nice and well-constructed novel (in my opinion).  But I’m skeptical.  The novel at least has the merit of brevity (a little over 200 pages, and small, wide-margined pages, at that)….we’ll see how this goes.