The Years Not Kind to Woolf’s Readers

In The Years, Virginia Woolf lifts the curtain on one English family over a 50-year period.Woolf’s novel isn’t a story in the conventional sense. It’s a collection of episodes, like pieces of a drama. There’s little description of people or settings. No one character predominates. Readers have to figure out who is who before they can figure out what is going on.

When the book opens, it’s 1880 and the Pargiters of Abercorn Terrace are waiting for the Mrs. Pargiter to die. She’s been an invalid so long, her death is a relief to her husband and children.

Woolf pops in on the family periodically over the years. Several of the children marry and have children of their own. The family home is put up for sale. The long-time housemaid is dismissed. The unmarried Pargiter children become poorer and more eccentric.

The Years is not a book to read when you are recovering from the flu. It’s a book that requires all your concentration, and maybe even a notepad to keep the characters straight. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t warrant the effort. Woolf’s genius is evident, but the novel fails to make her characters or their world come alive for readers.

The Years
By Virginia Woolf
Harcourt, Brace 1937
435 pages
#6 on the 1937 bestseller list
My grade: C+

 

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

East Side, West Side shows ordinary events become pivotal

Marcia Davenport’s East Side, West Side is a psychological novel that holds a mirror up to ourselves.

Jessie Bourne had been passionately in love with New York aristocrat Brandon Bourne when they married. Over 17 years, dissimilar tastes and interests along with Brandon’s womanizing have killed that passion.randon will never divorce Jessie. He has never actually loved any of his women. Besides, Jessie has money.

Jessie won’t divorce Brandon; she regards divorce as an admission of defeat.

At a party, Jessie meets General Mark Dwyer. They are moving discretely toward an affair when Brandon comes home in a panic. His brother had seen his mistress killed by a man who had been using the woman as a tool in his blackmail schemes.

Jessie’s quick thinking and loyal contacts save Brandon’s family from scandal, but in the process Jessie takes a hard look at Brandon and herself.

East Side, West Side is almost too good for comfort. In its pages we see how ordinary experiences like being bored by one’s relatives or arguing with one’s spouse can become catalysts that change the course of a person’s life.

Find a copy of East Side, West Side.

It’s a novel worth rereading.

East Side, West Side
By Marcia Davenport
Schribner’s, 1947
376 pages
1947 bestseller #9
My Grade: B+

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Kingsblood Royal is timeless but irritating

About 70 pages into Kingsblood Royal, Sinclair Lewis throws a bombshell into his boring characters’ boring lives—and the rest of the book is a real page-turner.

Capt. Neil Kingsblood has come home from World War II to a comfortable, suburban, middle-America life. Neil’s father sets him to chasing down his ancestors. Neil discovers his father’s forebears were ordinary yeomen, not aristocrats as his father had hoped.

He decides to look up his mother’s French ancestors.

The state historical society supplies copies of a letter by Xavier Pic, one of Neil’s ancestors who described himself as “a full-blooded Negro from Martinique.” That ancestry makes Neil a Negro by 1940s law most places in the US.

Should he keep quiet for the sake of his family or reveal his findings?

To help him decide, Neil makes it his business to meet Negroes and find out what it is like to be “colored.”

Kingsblood Royal demonstrates that prejudice arises from fear. While making that point, however, Lewis continually makes snide remarks about his white characters, ridiculing their intelligence, their perceptivity, their motives. After a while, the comments become irritating.

Even in race relations, few things are as black-and-white as Lewis makes them.

Kingsblood Royal
By Sinclair Lewis
Random House, 1947
348 pages
#8 on the 1947 bestseller list
My Grade: B
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Gentleman’s Agreement Victim of Its Own Success

Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement shook readers who had just come through World War II and considered themselves unprejudiced.

Journalist Phil Green decides to pose as a Jew to get the inside angle on anti-Semitism. Initially, only his mother, his girlfriend, and his editor know his Jewishness is only a pose.

Green becomes increasingly sensitized to prejudice. First he notices disparaging language, and then feels the slights and rejections. But it’s the reaction of those closest to him—his sister, his girlfriend, his son—that hit Green hardest.

Hobson tries to make her characters a mixture of good and bad, but they never quite ring true. Greene displays a naiveté that borders on stupidity. It never occurs to Green, for example, that his 8-year-old son is going to have questions about the charade.

Although anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of prejudice are probably as strong in America today as when Hobson was writing Gentleman’s Agreement, the novel wouldn’t have much impact on contemporary readers. Since 1947, we’ve seen too many stories about someone who goes undercover to get the scoop on being a minority.

The plot that confronted readers in 1947 is a cliché today.

Gentleman’s Agreement has become the victim of its own success.

Gentleman’s Agreement
Laura Z. Hobson
Simon and Schuster, 1947
275 pages
#3 bestselling novel in 1947
My Grade: C+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

On The Beach is so good, it’s terrifying

On the Beach is a gripping novel of suspense and horror by a master storyteller.

I burst into tears after I finished it.

Nevil Shute (a pen name; his real name is Norway) writes quietly, warmly about people who seem familiar. There’s no blood and gore in this novel:  just the raw horror of seeing the personal effects of world events.

The book opens Dec. 27 in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear war that wiped out life in the northern hemisphere.

Radioactive particles in the atmosphere are slowly making their way south. Scientists predict they will have reached Australia by September.

Australian naval officer Peter Holmes, assigned as liaison officer on an American nuclear submarine—one of two remaining American vessels in the world—invites American Captain Dwight Towers home for the weekend.

Peter’s wife gives a party, inviting Moria Davidson to amuse the captain. Moria falls hard for the captain; he likes her, too, but he loves his wife and kids back home in Connecticut.

Besides, he has a job to do.

Radio signals have been coming intermittently from Puget Sound. Mostly the signals have been gibberish, but there have been occasional decipherable words. Captain Towers is sent to investigate.

What happens after that will terrify anyone who keeps up with world news.

On the Beach
by Nevil Shute
William Morrow,  1957.  320 pages.
#8 on the 1957 bestseller list.
My grade: A+
©2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Compulsion is can’t-put-down reading

Compulsion covers much of the same ground as Crime and Punishment, but with a far more American tone and faster pace.

Novelist Meyer Levin was a young reporter in Chicago in the 1920s when two brilliant college students from wealthy homes kidnapped and killed a younger boy. Thirty years later, Levin set out to explore through fiction the question that was never answered at the time of the murder and the subsequent trial: why did they do it?

Why indeed?

Was it a genetic flaw? Or did their environments make them murderers?

Maybe Judd really believe he was a superman, above the law, as he sometimes said.

Or maybe Artie was demon-possessed.

Perhaps the sexual abuse inflicted by his nursemaid unhinged Judd.

Or perhaps, as the reporters said, they were just perverts.

Levin writes with the precision of an accomplished journalist. He puts nothing unnecessary down, omits no needed detail. Even the discussions of philosophy are so deft that Nietzsche becomes a plausible influence on the murderers. And, despite the horrific subject matter, Levin never stoops to any language unsuitable for a family newspaper.

Compulsion grabbed me with its first page and didn’t let go.

See if it won’t do the same for you.

Compulsion
By Meyer Levin
Simon & Schuster, 1956
495 pages
# 3 on the ’57 bestseller list
My grade: A

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni