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Archive for the ‘Psychological novel’ Category

The Eighth Day begins with murder of Breckenridge Lansing in his yard as he and his friend John Ashley are engaged in their customary Sunday afternoon rifle practice.

Tried and convicted for the murder, Ashley was rescued from execution by six silent, disguised men and never heard from again.


The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder
Harper & Row, 1967. 435 p. 1967 bestseller #6. My grade: B+.

Having hooked his readers, Thornton Wilder plays them for another 400 pages, now letting them drift backward on the story line, them abruptly jerking them forward into the Great War era.

Set out in linear fashion, the plot would be fairly simple. Wilder’s literary style makes it complicated—which appears to be his point: The world’s bid and wide and our perspective is narrow.

Wilder dips deep into the histories of the Lansings and Ashleys, seeking family traits that the 1902 characters might have inherited that could explain their behaviors.

The time shifts nearly hide the absurdities in the plot.

Wilder’s characters are clearly drawn, entirely believable bundles of heroism and absurdities.

Despite that, whatever is distinctive about the characters is crushed beneath Wilder’s self-conscious style.

quote : compares way some people naturally idealize to silk moth's secretion

He produces bon mots as continuously as a Bombyx mori secretes silk.

quote: idealism of youth compared to silk moth's silk secretion

Two comparisons to a Bombyx mori secreting silk within 16 pages is one mot too many.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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collage of photos of Hasidic Jews, a baseball glove, broken glasses.

The Chosen begins with Hasidic Jews, baseball, and broken glasses.

Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen opens with a baseball game between two Jewish parochial schools.

The Hasidic school’s best player is Danny Saunders. Reuven Malter leads the orthodox school’s team, which the Hasidim consider as bad as Christians.


The Chosen by Chaim Potok
© 1967. Book Club Edition, 284 pp. 1967 bestseller #3. My grade: A.

Danny slams back one of Reuven’s pitches, sending shards of his glasses into his eye.

Later Danny comes to the hospital to apologize.

Reuven is smart, Danny, with his photographic memory, is brilliant. A friendship springs up between the boys who have no intellectual peers in their schools.

Through the boys’ friendship, Potok takes readers deep into the orthodox scene.

Reuven is very close to his scholarly father. He finds Rabbi Saunders’s refusal to speak to Danny on any topic other than the Talmud appalling.

Danny is hurt by the silent treatment, but loves and respects his father.

As the boys begin college, the question arises: What will happen if they want different careers than their fathers have chosen for them?

In Potok’s deceptively straightforward narrative, it’s easy to miss details that reveal motives deeply rooted in the two faith communities. Some readers will need to read the novel twice to grasp the faith context.

Others may read The Chosen twice because it’s worth reading more than once.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia, revolted, slaughtering whites mercilessly.

The confession of the revolt’s leader, Nathaniel Turner, presented at his trial and subsequently published as a pamphlet, is the factual basis of William Styron’s novel.


The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
Random House, 1966, 1967; 428 p. 1967 bestseller #2. My grade: A.

sketch shows Nat being captured by white man

Nat Turner’s capture.


Nat’s mother was a cook, so Nat became a “house nigger.” The Turner family taught him to read and figure, gave him carpentry training, bought a Bible, and promised he’d be given his freedom at age 25.

By the time Nat was 25, faced with dwindling income from over-worked land, Turner family had sold all their possessions—including Nat—and left Virginia for good.

Nat’s freedom disappeared with Marse Samuel.

Nat’s Bible reading and his ache for companionship with like-minded people, gradually twist into the conviction that God wants him to lead a slave rebellion.

Styron avoids the familiar clichés of slave novels. Characters, both black and white, are victims of conditions they can’t control. The worst physical and mental suffering among blacks and whites occur among those least affluent even at the best of times.

Styron’s tale could easily be moved to Baltimore or St. Louis in 2015.

His novel is a wrenching reminder that how we treat individuals matters more than our opinions about race.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Arrangement is The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit without any clothes on.

Elia Kazan’s story gets off to a fast and sordid start.


The Arrangement: A Novel by Elia Kazan
Stein and Day, 1967, 544 p. My grade: C+.

car hit by tractor-trailer truck

Who does this deliberately?

“Indispensible Eddie” Anderson, an advertising executive (also known as Evans Arness, muckraking magazine writer, and as Evangelos Arness, son of a bankrupt Greek rug merchant) is having an affair from a girl from his office, Gwen Hunt.

Helped by a psychiatrist, wife Florence has learned to not notice Eddie’s profligacy.

Eddie leaves nude photographs of himself and Gwen where they’ll be found and brought to Florence’s attention.

Florence convinces Eddie to try to repair their marriage.

Some months into the reconciliation, Eddie drives his car into the side of a trailer truck.

While Eddie’s body heals, his mind gets increasingly unbalanced.

He ends up in a mental institution.

When he’s released, Eddie moves in with Gwen. They both work part time at a rural Connecticut liquor store. Eddie starts writing to clear his mind, moves on to writing short stories.

Eddie and Gwen are repellent characters. They don’t grow up; they just grow tired.

In the end, Eddie wonders if all the drama was necessary.

I wonder too.

Is writing fiction more noble than telling stories about consumer products?

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Readers will still find entertainment in the 1927 bestsellers, but not much besides entertainment. There’s not one of the novels whose plot I can recall beyond a sentence summary, even though I enjoyed all of them but one of them when I read them.

Despite their less than memorable plots, three of the bestsellers are well-written character studies, each of which I may reread when I finish my year’s required reading.

A Good Woman by Louis Bromfield

original "Good Woman" cover with author's dedicationEmma Downs is a Depression-Era Pharisee. Louis Bromfield’s A Good Woman lays her soul bare.

Emma lives by a strict religious code; she has no idea that it’s even possible for religion to be anything other than a list of do’s and do nots.

Bromfield makes clear on the jacket of the first edition that he saw America as full of women like Emma. He doesn’t treat her with scorn, but neither does he excuse her.

After reading  Bromfield’s 1927 bestseller, readers may debate whether America has more or fewer good women today than it had 90 years ago — and whether any change is for the better.

Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep is also a study in personalities but one with a generous helping of satire. Wharton’s satire comes awfully close to sarcasm sometimes, leaving the impression that she really didn’t like her characters.

Twilight is a story of a the family of Pauline and Dexter Munford, well-off New Yorkers of the jazz age. Pauline Munford fills her life with activities to improve herself and her world.

Twilight begins to settle in mountains

Pauline’s world is as far removed as this from those of most  in New York City.

Pauline keeps herself well insulated from the unpleasant real world, hence the title which plays off the popular 1920’s name for the drug combination that was given during childbirth to provide pain relief and induce amnesia about any unpleasantness.

Unlike Bromfield, Wharton tells her story in such a way that that readers have to put the pieces together, almost as if they were reading a mystery.

When Wharton’s pieces come together, they go off like a bomb.

To-Morrow Morning by Anne Parish

women in art class about 1900.

To-Morrow Morning‘s Kate Green might have taken an art class like this one.

Anne Parish’s To-morrow Morning is far gentler than the other two character studies. Her technique is more like Ferber’s than Bromfield’s: Parish makes readers work to piece together the story.

In To-morrow, Kate Starr, who becomes Kate Green, is a silly twit with a very modest talent for painting but neither ambition or discipline to do anything with such talent as she has.

Kate marries a man who is her mental and moral equal.

Having lost the money clients gave him to invest for them, Joe dies suddenly, thus escaping the consequences of his actions.

Creditors write off Joe’s debts in for “sweet Mrs. Green,” enabling Kate to avoid ever having to confront the consequences of Joe’s dishonesty.

Kate raises their son to be as undisciplined and purposeless as his parents.

If you have some time for reading, you’ll find any of these three 1927 bestsellers worth a couple evenings’ reading.


May 6, 2017 Corrected name of author of Twilight Sleep, which I had attributed to Edna Ferber in a blinding moment of stupidity while looking at the title page!

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original "Good Woman" cover with author's dedicationEmma Downes is a good woman.

Deserted by her husband, she started a business, supported herself, raised their son, now a missionary in Africa, and became a force to be reckoned with in her church.


A Good Woman by Louis Bromfield
Frederick A. Stokes, 1927. 432 pp. 1927 bestseller #10. My grade: A.

When natives attack Phillip’s African mission, Phillip escapes, dragging his virgin wife back to the states with him.

Missionaries board steam locomotive in Congo about 1900.

Phillip and Naomi left Africa after their mission was attacked.

Naomi would have preferred martyrdom, but Phillip has lost faith in his mother’s God and in his missionary calling.

Back home, Phillip takes a laborer’s job in the mills while his mother tries to put a good face on things — tough work, especially when her husband shows up after a 26 year absence.

Louis Bromfield builds his complex plot from the story’s setting and the personalities of his characters.

Bromfield draws Emma with deft strokes. She has guts, stamina, business acumen, determination, but she’s also manipulative, controlling, and self-deluded.

Emma’s religion is “ a practical, businesslike instrument of success,” her God conveniently pocket-sized, but Emma doesn’t know that.

Some of the incidents are shocking, but not unbelievable. The superficial way Bromfield relates horrific events powerfully suggests they are too awful to be spoken of.

Emma hasn’t a clue what Christianity is all about. Her cluelessness makes this book important — and vastly entertaining—90 years after its initial publication.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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While painting the Dorgone River Valley landscape, Richard Graham encounters a witch-like old woman who looks like a portrait by Goya. He accepts the Comtesse de Lomoudrie’s invitation to come to tea and bring his wife.

On the way, Richard and Jill visit a cemetery where one grave, that of Marthe Ludérac, stands isolated from the rest.


The Old Countess by Anne Douglas Sedgwick.
Grosset & Dunlap, 1927. 373 pp. 1927 bestseller #9. My grade: B+.

woman's hands folder in her lap.

Closeup of a Goya portrait.

At the Manoir, they find Mme. Lomoudire’s landlady is also a Marthe Ludérac. She’s the daughter of the woman in the lonely grave.

Jill, sensitive to suffering, feels sorry for the Countess, but knows instinctively that Marthe needs her as a friend.

Richard agrees to paint the Countess’s portrait to get a chance to see Marthe, which puts him in conflict with the jealous countess, his wife, and the attracted but self-controlled Marthe.

Anne Douglas Sedgwick portrays the four characters using tiny dabs of facts, details, and emotions. Jill and Marthe are straightforward, caring and incredibly good people; Richard and the Countess are manipulative and selfish and nasty.

Gradually the tiny bits add up to a crisis.

The atmosphere of The Old Countess is creepy, the plot contrived, the characters too all-of-a-piece to be believable.

And without a pretty good command of French, readers will miss much of the story.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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