A lot happens at the end of the book, much of which I’m still processing, but overall the sense I have right now is that Edna Ferber wrote the novel that Booth Tarkington set out to write in The Magnificent Ambersons. Those of you who remember my reactions to that book may be a bit surprised….certainly this isn’t the way I’d envisioned starting this review, even as recently as 50 pages from the end of the book. But in the end, this was a two-generation story about families growing up in the new American age. Economic and social roles shift, and the author casts her lot firmly with one side while exposing the flaws of the other. At the end of the book, a realization is reached by a young man who’d lived the wrong way. I could have written that synopsis of Ambersons and been pretty much spot on.
What makes Ferber more successful in telling this story is a bit complicated to explain, and multiple reasons are overlapping here. First of all, she’s too smart to hitch the main plot to a character as unlikable as Georgie Minafer—Selina DeJong is a delight (but sufficiently human to reveal some flaws), and her son Dirk DeJong (he of the “realization”) is at least a reluctant rich young jerk rather than an exuberant one (and he’s very conscious of not really wanting to be a jerk). Second of all, Ferber is very sensible about the changes of modern life: her criticisms of “the modern woman” are smart in two ways. She acknowledges clearly that not all modern women fit the stereotype (and is honestly fairly supportive of many advances for women), and even those modern women she opposes are described with a certain admiration. She understands why so many young women angle for money and connections, why they put on such airs and play such games—she doesn’t approve of their antics, but she sees them as people like her in a way that Tarkington could never have managed.
What bothers me about Ferber is her willingness to draw lines sharply against Dirk. The last portion of the novel leaves Dirk under absolutely no illusions regarding the fact that he’s made the wrong choices. The woman who “loves” him has no real appeal, and the woman he loves (or thinks he does) is too down-to-earth to have anything to do with him. His mother’s life as an asparagus farmer is richer and more exciting than his life among the rich, famous, and well-traveled in the best circles of Chicago society. But it seems pointless to have shown him all this: the woman he loves (Dallas O’Mara) makes it plain to him that it’s too late for him to change. That, at the ripe old age of his late 20s/early 30s, there’s nothing he could do to become the kind of honest, hard-working, tough young man that would ever really attract a woman like her. I could understand this with Newland Archer—the whole point of that book was the inexorable gravity of his society pulling him down, with no opportunity for him to achieve exit velocity. But Ferber didn’t do that with Dirk–he’s still close to a mother who is as grounded as anyone can possibly be (Dallas loves her), and as recently as a few years ago he was a young man fresh out of college and passionate about architecture. If he doesn’t escape his life because he “can’t” or “won’t”, Ferber doesn’t take the time to make that choice believable. In the end, Dirk’s decision to settle back into the life he hates seems inexplicable, and really a contrivance for the sake of ending the book the way she wants it to.
As I noted in an earlier review, there were really two books here. I understand why she tied them together—putting Selina and Dirk in contrast to each other creates some meaningful opportunities. But in the end, I felt she never really finished Selina’s story, and Dirk’s story feels only barely begun. Ferber has enough talent (good characterization, a decent ability to describe social settings, dialogue that’s often a bit witty or insightful…admittedly a style that’s sometimes a bit too sentimental) to write a really good novel, and a much better personality and attitude than some other authors (poor Tarkington…I never miss a chance to bash him) which means her tone and her instincts are generally good. She just tried to cram too many ideas into one novel, which leaves me a bit unsatisfied at the end of what was a pretty engaging read.
The latter half of the book is where this really shines. Ferber’s good at depicting the growth of a “society life” in young, brash Chicago–she neither steals from Wharton (which would be easy to do: surely Ferber knew Wharton’s work well) nor strays so far from it that it makes Chicago feel foreign to the New York environment I’m accustomed to. And this book is in the fascinating position of describing flappers just as they’re coming onto the scene (Ferber’s a bit wicked about them, but also a bit admiring), and Ferber’s attitudes about modern life gives her the advantage of guessing that the stocks-and-bonds boom time can’t last forever. The book gave me enough of 1920s Chicago to sink my teeth into that I could add my knowledge about 1929 and what followed, to give a real poignancy to her story. Ferber didn’t know that Dirk would be wiped out and penniless in 4 years, but I do.
There’s also a definite exploration of what Ferber thought it meant to be “American”—maybe more explicitly than any of the authors has since Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer confronted the differences between their worlds—and I think I was able to get a sense from her of what being American felt like at the height of the 1920s. It’s nice to have ridden this train up from the Great War…I can sense the Crash coming but I don’t have to confront it just yet.
I give So Big the rating “Read this after you’ve read about the 1920s”. It’s definitely a good book, and definitely worth reading if you have any interest in the time period/setting. But I think you should have dipped your toes into the 1920s somewhere else before this: whether you’re reading history, memoir, or another novel (like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), I think it will make this book a much richer experience when you do so. Ferber’s good enough that I’m willing to seek out other books of hers, too.
The Last Word:
As I’ve said already, I think Ferber’s been awfully direct in this book about what she values about America and what she disapproves of. She likes hard work, and artists who worship beauty, and good sturdy architecture. She disapproves of imported Parisian fashions, and “posh” accents, and investment banking. These lists could be much longer, but I’ll let Edna Ferber take us to the end of the review by indicating a bit more about Americans herself, in a conversation that Dirk DeJong and the woman he loves, the artist Dallas O’Mara, have while sitting in Selina DeJong’s farmhouse parlor, watching Selina talk animatedly to young Roelf Pool, an old friend.
Seated next to Dirk, Dallas said, in a low voice: “There, that’s what I mean. That’s what I mean when I say I want to do portraits. Not portraits of ladies with a string of pearls and one lily hand half hidden in the folds of a satin skirt. I mean character portraits of men and women who are really distinguished looking—distinguishedly American, for example—like your mother.”
Dirk looked up at her quickly, half smiling, as though expecting to find her smiling, too. But she was not smiling. “My mother!”
“Yes, if she’d let me. With that fine splendid face all lit up with the light that comes from inside; and the jaw-line like that of the women who came over in the Mayflower; or crossed the continent in a covered wagon; and her eyes! And that battered funny gorgeous bum old hat and the white shirtwaist—and her hands! She’s beautiful. She’d make me famous at one leap. You’d see!”