Thursday, October 30, 2014
Old Bestsellers: Random Harvest, by James Hilton
Random Harvest, by James Hilton
A review by Rich Horton
This series of reviews is about Old Bestsellers, obviously enough, and Random Harvest certainly qualifies: it was the second bestselling book of 1941 according to Publishers' Weekly and the New York Times. It's also intended to bring to light somewhat forgotten books, and I freely confess I thought Random Harvest was a likely "forgotten book" when I saw a copy at an antique store in Galesburg, IL. I've certainly heard of James Hilton, and I read Lost Horizon years ago, and I knew that Goodbye, Mr. Chips was also a famous book (and movie). But I pretty much thought those were the only two books by Hilton that anyone knew much about.
That's just me though. I quickly learned that Hilton had three major novelistic successes: Lost Horizon, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and the book at hand, Random Harvest. All sold very well, all were made into well-received movies. It still seems to me that the first two are much more widely remembered, in both book and movie form -- but a glance at the Amazon page for Random Harvest reveals no fewer than 123 reader reviews, with an averaging rating of 4.3 stars (and of the two 1 star reviews one is complaining about not receiving his e-book copy -- so a review of the service not the book -- and the other claims to love the movie but hate the book -- suggesting to me a reader confused by such things as extended flashbacks ... and probably words -- but I snark).
James Hilton was born in Lancashire in 1900, son of a headmaster (and indeed we are told that his father was an inspiration for the main character of Goodbye, Mr. Chips). His first novel was published in 1920, but his first major success was with Lost Horizon in 1933. Goodbye, Mr. Chips followed a year later, and sold even better, evidently reigniting sales for his earlier novels. Hilton moved to Hollywood in the mid-30s, working on a number of screenplays, most notably perhaps Mrs. Miniver, for which he won an Oscar. (Mrs. Miniver also won for Best Picture -- ironically, another nominated film that year was Random Harvest.) Hilton married twice and divorced twice -- his first wife, Alice Brown, was an Englishwoman and his second wife, Galina Kopineck, was "a starlet", though I can't find her name in the IMDB. He died in 1954.
Random Harvest opens with the narrator, a Cambridge graduate student named Harrison, encountering an older man named Charles Rainier on a train. They discuss the impending war (this is 1937) and a shared interest in psychology, as well as a story about Rainier's service in the Great War. Afterward Harrison looks Rainier up and learns that he's a successful business owner and a Member of Parliament, and too that Rainier is to be a guest at a Cambridge function for which Harrison is one of the hosts ... One thing leads to another and after Harrison finishes his degree he takes a job as Rainier's secretary.
They become somewhat close, and eventually Charles tells Harrison his story (recounted to us in third person). He was a younger son of an autocratic father who ran a prominent company. As with so many young men, he joined the army to fight the Germans, and was severely injured. He remembered nothing from the time of his injury until waking on a bench in the Liverpool rain a year or two after the armistice. Then he returned home, to find his father dying, and the rest of his rather awful family a bit miffed that he is still alive and that their cut of the inheritance just got smaller. He returns to Cambridge, making a bit of a mark, but before he can take a degree his brother has run the family company into the ground, and Charles is pressured into taking over the firm. He makes a great success of it, and over time falls in love with his much younger step-niece (she is 14 and he 25 when they meet ... a bit of a Door Into Summer vibe ...) But she suddenly throws him over as they are about to get married. The rest of the story is a bit routine: continued success with the firm, a pleasant but apparently loveless marriage to an efficient secretary who as his wife works hard to make him a social and political leader, and a growing sense of loss, and of having missed a chance to do what he really should have with his life.
Then we return to the present time, as war grows closer. Harrison and Rainier attend a play, and that plus a chance mention of a certain hospital suddenly leads to Rainier regaining his memory of the lost years between his injury and his waking up in Liverpool ... and we get an account of this time, when he had no idea who he was, or what his family was, and called himself Smith after escaping from an asylum, soon meeting an actress in a touring company of players, and joining the company as a sort of accountant and later, briefly, a successful actor (I was reminded of Scaramouche), while he and the actress become closer ... well, I won't spoil anything, but the crisis and resolution obviously involve Rainier's need to reconcile his two separate lives -- if even he can.
The ending is beautiful, I have to say, if perhaps a bit contrived, and certainly representative of popular fiction. But that's what it is, after all. Hilton is also deeply concerned with the nature of England, and a return to a simpler, truer, time. I think in this he is a bit sentimental and uncritical of what that Olde England was really like. Its clear that Rainier (and perhaps Hilton) expected the second War to shock England into major changes, and so it did, but I don't think the changes were precisely as this novel seems to advocate. All that said, it does provoke thought about such issues, and more importantly, it's a greatly enjoyable book to read, with a really moving finish.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Old Bestsellers: Heyday, by W. M. Spackman
Heyday, by W. M. Spackman
A review by Rich Horton
I'm cheating a bit here ... this wasn't a bestseller (though I think it did OK), and it's not quite as old as the usual parameters of this series. (I like to stay pre-1950, and this book is from 1953.) It's also not exactly forgotten, though it was in danger of being forgotten when Spackman's career stalled for a couple of decades as he couldn't sell his (outstanding) second novel.
One of my favorite 20th Century American writers is W. M. Spackman. Spackman was a Quaker, of old family and old money, born in 1905, a member of the Princeton Class of 1927. The depression apparently ruined his plans for his life (he lost all his money), and he spent some time in journalism and radio, before ending up in academe in the 50s, though after selling his first novel he returned to Princeton to write (but apparently not to teach). His first novel was Heyday, published in 1953, when he was 48. It was apparently a modest success. His next novel, An Armful of Warm Girl, was finished by 1959 or so, but he couldn't sell it. He concentrated on his academic work then, publishing some well-regarded essays and a collection of poems, until An Armful of Warm Girl was rediscovered and eventually published in Harper's in 1977, and as a book in 1978. Three more novels were published by 1985 (A Presence with Secrets, A Difference of Design, and A Little Decorum, for Once). Spackman died in 1990, leaving an unpublished novel (As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning) and some work on a revision to Heyday. All six of these novels (Heyday in its partially revised form) and a couple of short stories were published by the magnificent folks at The Dalkey Archive Press in 1997 as The Collected Fiction of W. M. Spackman. I've written about that book before, I think it's wonderful. The later novels, from Armful on, are generally of a piece -- the plots feature lighthearted adultery, usually between a man in his 50s or older and a somewhat younger woman (the ages range from the late teens to the 40s through the various books). The primary delight of the novels is the prose -- as somebody wrote, "confectionary" -- a breathless, elegant, supple, sheerly gorgeous stream of words -- wry and purposely affected dialogue, ardent descriptions (usually of the inexhaustible charms of beautiful women) -- and constant movement. For some tastes the prose might be too affected, too arch -- though not for me. For many tastes, including mine, if I let it bother me, the plots and situations and characterizations are very classist, arguably sexist, and full of wish-fulfillment. The general mood is comic, though the novels can turn meditative and somewhat melancholy at times.
Heyday is a rather different beast. I have read both versions. The revisions are mostly severe cuts. The original novel, about twice the length of the later revision, was published simultaneously in hardcover and paperback by Ballantine in 1953. The basic subject of the novel, in both forms, is the tribulations of the Princeton Class of 1927 during the Depression. We follow a small group of men and women as they try to find work, hatch silly schemes like riding out the slump on a communal farm, and, mostly, go to parties and sleep with each other. The narrator is a man named Webb Fletcher, a Quaker born in Pennsylvania but raised in Wilmington, Delaware (much like Spackman), but his main interest is chronicling the love life of a distant cousin of his, Malachi ("Mike") Fletcher, also a Quaker and a fellow member of the Class of 1927. The storyline follows Mike as he almost falls in love with Kitty Locke, only to find her long term involvement with a somewhat abusive other man too much to overcome; and as he fends off the desperate attentions of Jill Starr, a fragile woman who is being blatantly cheated on by her husband; then as he enters an affair with Stephanie Lowndesden, only to lose her to Webb, after which he rekindles things with Kitty, even though it is clear his chance for real happiness is gone. In the later, revised, version, that's pretty much all there is (intermixed, to be sure, with some descriptions of Webb's amorous adventures, particularly with Stephanie), but it works pretty well -- it's a desperate portrayal of a rather desperate, not wholly sympathetic, group of people. At the same time it is basically comic, though tinged with melancholy, as what wouldn't be set against the backdrop of the Depression. (And there is only a smidgen of recognition that these characters are privileged and lucky, with resources to fall back on that many a poor person entirely lacked.) The prose is pretty good, though not pitched quite to the level of Spackman's later novels (much of the dialogue is already pure Spackman).
The parts Spackman cut tend to shift the focus quite a bit, and to point a moral rather more explicitly. They also move the novel more to the tragic than comic direction. The original novel opens as Webb Fletcher, a Lt Cdr for Navy Intelligence, finds out that Mike Fletcher has died in the Pacific in 1942, attacking a Japanese ship with his carrier-based plane. (Apparently he was not a Conscientious Objector, even though a Quaker.) Webb begins to reflect on what he knew of Mike, and the ways in which he and his cousin were very similar, and yet also the ways in which Webb was able to avoid Mike's desolate end. (Not so much dying, but entering into a less than satisfactory marriage, it later becomes clear. In the revised version, I don't think it's made clear that Mike's marriage to Kitty is a second-best sort of thing.) And Webb reflects a bit on his Princeton career, and then on a trip to France shortly after college at which he encountered Davy Starr with a silly girl named Jill, and Jill's friend Barbara, or Bar, with whom Webb falls head over heels in love. Webb and Bar are married, then the Depression hits, and they spend some time in Chicago before Webb gets a job in New York. On the way to meet Webb in New York, Bar, not concentrating, runs over three children on a rural road, and gets sent to prison for manslaughter.
Which makes for a slightly lurid opening. The novel continues to the middle section, which is pretty much exactly the revised version, except that explicit references to Webb's being married, and to Bar's travails in prison, are excised. Thus the original version is much more balanced in that it is about both Webb and Mike, and that much of the novel is really concerned with Webb's loneliness, missing Bar, and how his eventual despair (particularly after an early parole chance is denied) nearly leads to what might have been a disastrous affair with Kitty Locke, and does lead to his actually rather sweet, but doomed, affair with Stephanie Lowndesden. Finally, there is a closing section, also cut, detailing Webb's and Bar's reunion in 1937, after she is finally released from prison, and their beginning to rebuild their life (apparently successfully, as far as we can tell from the perspective of 1942). Spackman also takes some care to point out that Webb's eventual salvation was that he fell thoroughly in love with someone, while Mike is portrayed as never having been able to give himself so completely to a woman (there are hints that maybe he should have taken Jill away from Davy Starr). There is also a mild suggestion that Stephanie is tragically, or at least sadly, deprived of her own true love because Webb is already "taken".
All in all the revised version seems a bit more explicitly Fitzgeraldian -- indeed, Spackman himself, in a note at the end of 1953 edition, brings up Fitzgerald. Besides Fitzgerald the most obvious comparison might be the great British novelist Henry Green, born in the same year as Spackman. Another comparison might be with the early novels of yet another great writer born in 1905, Anthony Powell, especially his first, Afternoon Men. Heyday is a pretty good book, one that you would probably call very promising had you encountered it in 1953, but maybe also a bit unsure of itself -- too ready to force a point, as it were. And maybe a bit too overtly portentous.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Old Bestsellers: The Night Life of the Gods, by Thorne Smith
The Night Life of the Gods, by Thorne Smith
A review by Rich Horton
Thorne Smith of course remains fairly famous as the writer of two novels, Topper and Topper Takes a Trip, about a banker stuck in a boring marriage who is haunted by a funloving ghost couple. These books remain famous probably mostly because of a series of successful movies (starring Cary Grant, in the first film at least) and later a radio show and a TV series.
Smith was born James Thorne Smith, Jr., in 1892. He came from a Naval family, attended Dartmouth, and then spent some time in the Navy. His first couple of books consisted of comic sketches about Biltmore Oswald, a Naval recruit, that were originally written for a Navy magazine. His breakout books was Topper, in 1926. Besides Topper his most successful novels were The Stray Lamb (1929), and The Night Life of the Gods (1931). Smith died in 1934, as far as I can tell having essentially drunk himself to death -- his novels featured heavy drinking (even as, or perhaps because, they were set during Prohibition), and he apparently drank as prodigiously as his characters.
The Night Life of the Gods concerns Hunter Hawk, a successful bachelor inventor who has been forced to take in his sister, her useless husband, her husband's father, and their two children, the awful Alfred Junior and the rather nice Daphne. Hawk invents a petrification ray, which he uses to rather cruelly turn his relatives into stone (and back again, I should say). He wanders off into the countryside and meets a leprechaun, and the leprechaun's enchanting daughter Megaera, or Meg.
Meg falls immediately for Hawk, and leaps into his bed at the first opportunity. She and her father enjoy Hawk's liquor a great deal, and before long they have got him into trouble with the law. They end up at his New York City apartment, from whence they proceed to the Metropolitan Museum, where a reverse process of the petrification ray turns various statues of the Greek gods into living beings.
The rest of the novel concerns the chaos caused by the gods having the time of their "lives" drinking and thieving and pranking their way through New York, and later back into the country where Hawk's other home is. But the law is still after him, and the gods soon tire of the pace of modern life, not to mention the strenght of modern liquor. And Hunter's family is still a problem -- is there a way he can solve his problems so that Daphne comes out OK and the more odious of his family (and neighbors) are punished? The ending is actually rather bittersweet, and in some ways the best thing about the book. It's clear that Hunter Hawk, for all his intelligence and cynicism, and for all that he seems to really love Meg, is not a happy person.
I have to say I wasn't enthralled by the book. It's one of those stories where you can see that it's funny and clever throughout, but somehow that doesn't really strike home. Part of it might be some datedness -- the treatment of sex was perhaps intended to be shocking and titillating but for a contemporary audience that hardly registers. The drinking also perhaps doesn't come off in the same spirit so many years after prohibition, and with it necessary to keep in mind that excessive drinking (and wild driving under the influence) isn't necessarily all that funny. I know that makes me sound like a killjoy, but, well, there you are. It's clearly a well-done book, but not a book I could really love.
Some years ago I had read The Stray Lamb, and I'll reproduce the snippet I wrote about that:
This features a fortyish, rich, investment banker type, in 1928 or so, named T. Lawrence Lamb. Lamb becomes fascinated with a beautiful friend of his daughter, who throws herself at him His wife is a b*tch, so Lamb would like to accept her advances, but he is too strait-laced in habits. Then a mysterious stranger decides to teach him a lesson. He is changed in turn to several different animals, such as a horse, a dog, a seagull, and others. Chaos ensues, his wife leaves him, he learns to be less straitlaced. It's quite fun, often very funny and very clever. A bit forced at times, and a lot convenient. But enjoyable.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Ace Doubles: Empire Star, by Samuel R. Delany/The Tree Lord of Imeten, by Tom Purdom
Ace Doubles: Empire Star, by Samuel R. Delany/The Tree Lord of Imeten, by Tom Purdom
A review by Rich Horton
Not having finished reading my latest old bestseller, I'm turning to an Ace Double, as noted previously also an interest of mine. This books pairs a very interesting early novel (or novella) by one of the greatest of SF writers (and a newly minted SFWA Grandmaster) with an enjoyable early novel by a favorite writer of mine, a man whose work flew largely under the radar until a modest increase in visibility engendered by a late career resurgence. So: Samuel R. Delany certainly isn't forgotten, but to an extent Empire Star is underappreciated (in my opinion), and Tom Purdom is surely a writer who deserves a wider audience.
This Ace Double was published in 1966. Empire Star is about 29,000 words long, The Tree Lord of Imeten is about 48,000 words. To the best of my knowledge, neither book appeared in any other form previous to this publication. Delany had 5 novels appear as part of Ace Doubles: his first, The Jewels of Aptor; the first two novels in his Fall of the Towers trilogy; The Ballad of Beta-2, and this one. The Ballad of Beta-2 and Empire Star were later reissued together as #20571 in the last year of Ace Doubles, 1973. My original copy of the two books, bought in 1975 for $1.25, is not bound dos-a-dos like a typical Ace Double -- I think this is a still later reissue of the 1973 Ace Double, but I may be wrong -- perhaps this was the 1973 version (though $1.25 seems a high price).
Samuel R. Delany was justly among the most celebrated SF writers of the 60s and 70s. For me his most congenial work is a remarkable burst of stories and novels from 1966 through 1968 -- those three years saw the publication of his Nebula winning novels Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection as well as my favorite among his novels, Nova, plus his Nebula winning story "Aye, and Gomorrah", his Nebula and Hugo winner "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones", and such stories as "The Star Pit", "Driftglass", and "We, in Some Strange Power's Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line". To say that those are my favorites among Delany's work shouldn't be seen as rejecting the value of later stuff such as Trouble on Triton or Tales of Neveryon, which I still enjoy -- it's just that what he did from 1966 through 1968 still impresses me as just plain more fun.
Empire Star came out just at the beginning of this period, in 1966. It is generally grouped with his earlier novels, but in tone it reminds me as much of Babel-17 as any of his stuff, and it quite openly foreshadows aspects of Nova. It doesn't have the enduring reputation of the stories I mentioned above, but it is impressive work, extremely playful in a bravura and quite accomplished fashion -- showing an author clearly besotted with language, clearly interested in allusion and symbolism but still at the point of having fun with it all. It's a thoroughly enjoyable novel, if just that bit less serious than even his slightly later stuff to relegate it to the second rank among his works.
It opens with Comet Jo, a young man on a planet of Tau Ceti devoted to harvesting plyasil and nothing else, encountering a downed alien spaceship and coming into possession of a devil kitten, a crystallized alien called Jewel, and a message to deliver to Empire Star. So he hitches a ride with a spaceship away from Tau Ceti -- despite the fact that he is a simplex boy, and that living in the wider universe may require him to become complex and even multiplex. The story darts rapidly to Earth, to other planets, and to Empire Star; and Jo meets such people as the tortured San Severina, who owns seven enslaved aliens called Lll; and the embodied consciousness of a Lll in a computer -- the Lump; and the suicidal poet Ni Ty Lee, who (like Theodore Sturgeon) seems to have done everything you have done before you could do it; and a Princess escaped from Miss Perrypicker's Academy. What is it about -- well, that's sort of multiplex. It's swift and gay and bittersweet and funny and the ending is delightful, with echoes of Charles Harness but much tighter. It's really a fine work.
Tom Purdom's first story was published in 1957, when he was 21, and over the subsequent 15 years or so he published some 13 stories in a variety of places (Analog, Science Fiction Quarterly, Amazing, Galaxy, etc.) and 5 novels (three of which were Ace Double halves). It would probably be fair to say that he didn't gain a lot of notice, though at least one story made a Wollheim/Carr Best of the Year collection. Then he fell mostly silent until 1990 -- only two stories, one in Galaxy and one in Analog. Beginning in 1990, however, he began to publish short fiction regularly again, most of it in Asimov's, and much of it very impressive indeed. Stories like "Cider", the three "Romance" stories about a Casanova-like character in a posthuman future, and this year's "The Path of the Transgressor" are quite remarkable, as well as later work like 2013's "A Stranger from a Foreign Ship".
So, I am rather an admirer of his latter-day short fiction. I was thus glad when I ran across this Ace Double:-- not only was it a good excuse to reread Empire Star but a good opportunity to try Purdom at novel length, as this was the first of his novels I read. The result is not bad -- The Tree Lord of Imeten isn't a brilliant book at all, and it's noticeably rushed in its conclusion, but it's a fairly original and refreshing story in many ways. It's not as good as Empire Star (not even close) but it's solid work, and the combined Ace Double has to rank as one of the stronger books in the whole series.
Harold is a 21 year old man living in a colony of refugees from a regimented 21st Century Earth. The colony has been established on a plateau on a planet of Delta Pavonis, on a world otherwise dominated by forest, mountain, and ocean. His mother and sister are long dead, and his father and his best friend have just been murdered in some never specified political dispute. A young woman, Joanne, negotiates a deal whereby the two are exiled off the plateau, but not killed.
In the forest they encounter two separate intelligent species -- a ground-dwelling species without hands (just paws) but great linguistic facility; and a tree-dwelling apelike species which has just entered on an Iron Age. The tree-dwellers are violent, and they have enslaved many members of the ground dwelling species. Harold and Joanne are captured by the tree-dwellers, and, sickened by the slaveholding, they scheme to escape and work to free the slaves.
All fairly routine, really, but it's redeemed by a pretty decent job of portraying the two species, particularly the ground-dwellers, and by the fairly well-characterized main characters. Minor effective details are Harold's extreme nearsightedness and Joanne's limp. The plot resolution is a bit rapid, and somewhat conventional. Still, I liked it, and I wondered if Purdom wrote a sequel -- there's definitely room for a story about the eventual contact between the two indigenous species and the rest of the human colony.
As for the sequel I had wondered about: in the past few years (2010-2014) Purdom has published four novelette-length extensions to the story, all published in Asimov's: "Warfriends", "Golva's Ascent", "Warloard", and "Bogdavi's Dream". These follow on fairly directly from the novel, continuing the story of the two alien races and a number of humans: not just Harold and Joanne but other resisters to the (now better explained) political dispute among the human colony. They are very fine work, and I hope we'll eventually see an omnibus of The Tree Lord of Imeten and these follow-on stories.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
Old Bestsellers: The Black Flemings, by Kathleen Norris
The Black Flemings, by Kathleen Norris
A review by Rich Horton
Here again is a book of the sort I consider central to this series ... a popular book from decades ago by a supremely popular writer who is now mostly forgotten.
Kathleen Thompson was born in San Francisco, California, in 1880. Her parents both died in 1899, and she worked in a hardware store to support her siblings, and also began to publish occasional short stories. In 1906 she became the society columnist for the San Franscico Call. She met writer Charles Gilman Norris in the course of that job, and married him in 1909, after he had moved to New York to edit the American Magazine. They had one living child (a pair of twins died in childbirth or shortly after). The Norrises returned to California in 1919. Kathleen Norris died in 1966.
Norris' first novel, Mother (1911), was expanded from a story she wrote for the American. It became a bestseller and was praised by the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt. She began publishing novels regularly, by some accounts publishing as many as 93. Her novels were consistently bestsellers, and two appear on Publishers' Weekly's lists of the Top Ten bestsellers by year: The Heart of Rachael in 1916, and Harriet and the Piper in 1920. She is often called the bestselling woman novelist of the 20th Century -- I'm not sure how this was determined, though. For example, Mary Roberts Rinehart, a very near contemporary of Norris's, and approximately as prolific, appeared on the PW lists of Top Ten Bestsellers of the year 12 times, for 10 different books -- one would think she sold as many or more books as Norris. Norris continued to publish novels at least into the 1950s.
Norris was related by marriage to a number of well-known writers. Her husband was a well-received novelist in his day, most especially for Salt, though he is all but forgotten today. Her brother-in-law, Frank Norris, was much more crtically successful than either of them, and is still remembered, especially for McTeague and The Octopus. Kathleen Norris' sister married poet William Rose Benét, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1942. Though William Rose Benét is hardly read any more, his brother Stephen Vincent Benét, who also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, is still very well-known. (The Benét's are the only pair of siblings each to have won a Poetry Pulitzer, though cousins Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell also both won the Prize.)
Kathleen Norris was critically regarded as overly sentimental, partly because her books exalted the roles of wife and mother; and no doubt partly because her bestseller plots do seem to have tended towards the sentimental. He relatively low critical regard probably also stems from her prolificity, and too from her financial success. Her husband's work was better received at the time, though she seems to have sold better. Likely her place as a writer of overtly "women's fiction" contributed to her reception as well. It is my sense that she is a writer, unlike many of the writers I've covered in this series (though not all) who may well be worthy of a modest revival. She was a devout Catholic, and an ardent opponent of birth control, though on other political questions, especially having to do with women's rights, her views were more liberal.
The Black Flemings (1926) does not seem to be one of her better known books. (As far as I can tell, her best-received novels, besides the bestsellers already mentioned, include Saturday's Child (1914), Josselyn's Wife (1918), and Certain People of Importance (1922).) It is set in Massachusetts, on the coast, almost entirely in a gloomy old mansion called Wastewater. Wastewater is the home of the Fleming family, but at the time of the action, there is no real head of the family. David Fleming, a distant cousin who was raised by the late Roger Fleming after his widowed mother married him, acts as a financial advisor of sorts. He is level-headed and not terribly ambitious, and spends much of his time painting. He has a sort of intention to marry Roger's niece, Sylvia, who is beautiful and intelligent and "superior". Roger's son (and David's half-brother), Tom, ran away to sea at 14, and had not been heard from since -- he is assumed to be dead, making Sylvia the heir. The mistress of Wastewater is Aunt Flora, another distant cousin, who had twice been engaged to marry Roger, only to be thrown over, first for David's mother and then for Cecily Kent, a frail 17 year old who somehow attracted Roger's attention only to die after only a few unhappy years of marriage. Flora had married Roger's rackety brother Will, who later died, though not before fathering Sylvia.
Into this tangle returns Gabrielle Charpentier, the daughter of Aunt Lily, Flora's younger sister, who went mad and died, partly because her husband, Mr. Charpentier, abandoned her even before Gabrielle's birth. Gabrielle, or Gay, is a beautiful young woman, blond as opposed to the usual brunette of the "Black Flemings", and convent educated. The problem is what to do with her ... she has no money, and little in the way of education. But, we soon realize, she is the true heroine, and her steadfastness, honesty, and good instincts are seen (by the writer and (eventually) the reader) as greater virtues than Sylvia's "superiority" (though it should not be said that Sylvia is at all a bad person). To the reader's non-surprise, she falls for David -- and soon David for her, though he doesn't quite realize it.
The novel develops somewhat slowly (though it remains interesting), and unveils its secrets (which are many) at a rather unconventional pace. It turns mainly on the questions of Gabrielle's birth, about which there are a series of revelations, as well as on such things as the identity of the mysterious old woman whom Gay sometimes sees but whom everyone else denies the existence of; and too of course on the true fate of David's half-brother Tom, who would be the heir to Wastewater and to the Fleming fortune if he were ever to be found; and also on the real history of Roger's adventures with women. So in fact there is a distinct touch of the Gothic to the whole thing, though it's not a full-blown Gothic.
The wrapping up is not really much of a surprise, though the specifics of the working out aren't necessarily exactly as expected. I will say Sylvia's eventual fate seemed a bit tacked-on to me. It really reads quite nicely -- Norris was a writer of some skill. She also worked hard at delineated her characters -- doing, to be sure, a lot of telling and not showing. And she did not get deep into their inner life, but at a more superficial level she does good work. I suppose I would say it is quite skilled popular fiction characterization, if not being great literary characterization. Her depiction of Sylvia, in particular, is quite acute, and I believed it utterly. Gay, on the other hand, though a very engaging protagonist, is rather too much the paragon to convince. The book, as I suggested, moves a bit slowly, but it still held my attention. And I will say that I have some interest in checking out something more by Norris (though I probably don't have the TIME to do so!)
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