Post-earthquake rubbish: The Sisters-in-Law

San Francisco burning during 1906 earthquake
This photograph by Arnold Genthe shows Sacramento Street and approaching fire. (from Steinbrugge Collection of the UC Berkeley Earthquake Engineering Research Center)

The Sisters-in-Law could have been a great novel if a Taylor Caldwell or John O’Hara had penned it. Gertrude Atherton merely churned out prose in large quantities.

The 1906 earthquake hits San Francisco as Alexina Groome comes home from dance where she’s fallen for Mortimer Dwight. His behavior in the quake’s aftermath wins over Alexina’s mother despite his lack of old money.

Mortimer’s sister, Gora, who has the brains and ambition Morty lacks, befriends a young Englishman unable to sail for home because of the quake. Gora falls for the Brit, but Gathbroke, like Morty, has fallen for Alexina, who refuses him and marries Monty instead.

Alexina, pretty and mindless, does nothing but spend money Monty doesn’t make. Their marriage comes apart so genteelly Morty doesn’t even notice.

Gora becomes a nurse and writes on the side, eventually becoming a recognized literary author. She and Alexina become buddies, united by their mutual disrespect for Monty.

When World War I erupts, both sisters-in-law go to Europe to serve behind the lines where they meet Gathbroke again. By then, Atherton’s plot is fractured so badly that any ending will do to get the story over.

Atherton’s characters might have been interesting if she’d let them speak for themselves, but she insists on telling us instead of letting them act their parts. The result is a lengthy disappointment.

The Sisters-in-Law: A Novel of our Time
by Gertrude Atherton
1921 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg E-text 8535
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The photograph above appears on the USGS website.


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Linda Aragoni

I'm passionate about helping people learn through the medium of nonfiction writing. Although I occasionally have an idea of my own, I mostly build education tools by recycling and repurposing other folks' ideas.

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