The Tontine tests readers’ endurance

Always prolix, Thomas B. Costain outdoes himself in The Tontine.

It is a dreary novel on an epic scale.


The Tontine  by Thomas B. Costain

Doubleday ©1955.  2 v. Illus Herbert Ryman. 1955 bestseller #9. My grade: C-.


London businessman Samuel Carboy smells a scam in the 1815 Waterlook Tontine. He intervenes to save investors’ money—and milk the scheme in a more civilized manner. Dust jacket of The Tontine shows four characters in 19th century dress against backdrop of an hourglass.

Carboy, his partner, and Carboy’s carriage driver each buy shares in the tontine for their children.

The story follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the three families as they mess about on every continent until the tontine survivors dwindle to three: Isabelle Carboy, Julian Grace, and Helen Groody.

Interest in the tontine reaches fever pitch.

So much money is bet on the outcome that the British government fears attempt on the lives of the remaining trio.

Costain has so many plots and sub-plots, he can’t remember them all.

Sam Carboy’s milking of the tontine disappears without a trace.

Carboy’s son conveniently dies in America.

His grandson bankrupts his company—” hard times” is the reason Costain gives—and goes off to Africa to be heard of no more.

Julian Grace’s son disappears, too.

Too bad more characters didn’t disappear before they appeared in print: The Tontine is an awful novel.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Linda Aragoni

I read. I write. I think. I make big ideas simple. I help teachers teach expository writing to teens and adults. In my free time, I read and review old novels.

3 thoughts on “The Tontine tests readers’ endurance”

  1. :-) You know, I retain a sort of strange fondness for this massive meandering thing, both endless volumes of it! I think I’ve read it at least three times since abstracting it from my mother’s bookcase one teenage summer back in the 1970s. But maybe you’re right; Costain has perhaps not aged particularly well. You’re a brave soul for tackling this one, and making it to the end!

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    1. I was a big fan of Costain in my teens, a decade earlier than yours. I think perhaps his books’ size was part of the appeal: I felt I’d done something big when I read a Costain novel. Costain did make history attractive to me in ways that biography did not. I owe him that.

      Oddly, the novels whose stories I remember from my mother’s bookcase are cozy volumes about trivial things–and often they are not even particularly well-written. Reading is always interesting, even when the reading material isn’t!

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  2. I was astounded to learn that anyone might come from such a distant planet as to be unaware of the “spoiler alert” concept when expounding on plot related materials.
    Hal—looo??
    You certainly did make Mr. Costin’s “big ideas simple”!

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