Rich Man, Poor Man: A story without a message

Irwin Shaw’s beguiling novel Rich Man, Poor Man will keep you turning pages way past your bedtime.

Rich Man, Poor Man 1st ed dust jacket

It won’t, however, provide anything other than entertainment.

Shaw looks at the lives of Rudolph, Gretchen and Thomas Jordache from the end of World War II through the Vietnam War.

Their father, a German immigrant, killed to get to America. He finds he can’t get ahead no matter how hard he works. He takes his bitterness out on his wife and kids.

Rudolph, 16, has brains, ambition, and willingness to work hard. He deliberately cultivates his more rare assets: trustworthiness and likeability.

Gretchen is 19. Her high school friends went to college; her parents couldn’t afford to send her. She works as a secretary: The family needs her paycheck.

Tom, 15, is as bitter as his father. He’s smart, just not school-smart. He enjoys hitting people.

Shaw makes the separate lives of the three very different siblings come alive.

When they reach their 40s, Shaw succeeds in bringing them under one roof, but nothing can resolve their childhood traumas.

That’s probably a realistic outcome. Readers, however, crave some glimmer of hope that people can change the trajectory of their lives.

Shaw can’t produce one.

Rich Man, Poor Man by Irwin Shaw
Delacorte Press, [1970]. 723 p.
1970 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Testimony of Two Men, one his own worst enemy

island is central image on dust jacket of "Testimony of Two Men"
Islands can be emotional as well as physical.

Taylor Caldwell begins Testimony of Two Men where more usual novels would have ended: Dr. Jonathan Ferrier has been acquitted of the murder-by-botched-abortion of his young wife, Mavis.

Unable to live among people who doubted his innocence, Jon has sold his practice to young Robert Morgan, who, of candidates Jon interviewed, seemed least likely to do harm.

Robert feels something akin to awe of Jon, for his culture as much as for his brilliant medical skill.

Jon finds Robert’s conventional, mamma’s boy behavior amusing.

Jon’s brother, Harald, made a marriage of convenience to a rich widow. She’s dead; Harald is living on an island with her nubile daughter, whom he wishes to marry.

When Robert sees Jenny, he’d like to marry her, too.

Jon thinks Jenny is a whore and Harald one of her sex partners.

Taylor Caldwell makes the novel part mystery, part romance, but always keeps her focus on the psychological development of her characters.

Jon’s insulting manner with people he thinks cruel, incompetent, or corrupt make him his own worst enemy.

Fortunately, he has some good friends who come to his rescue.

Caldwell wraps up the novel with enough of Jon’s hostility showing to prove she’s a good novelist.


Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1968, Book Club Edition, 600 pp. My grade: A-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

This Side of Innocence made riveting by unlikeable people

Taylor Caldwell sets This Side of Innocence in the era of bustles and Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, but this odd tale of a dysfunctional family packs all the punch of a Netflix® drama.

Seeking happiness, the characters try the old standbys—sex, fulfilling work, filial duty—and still there’s something missing.


This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell

Scribner’s 1946. 499 p. 1946 bestseller #2 .My grade A-.


After his son opts for a life of profligacy, a widowed banker adopts a cousin, Alfred Lindsey, as his heir.

When it appears Alfred may marry, Jerome comes back to the family home.

Unable to stop Alfred’s marriage, Jerome experiences a sudden desire to go into banking. Soon, he finds he like banking almost as much as he likes Alfred’s wife, Amilie.

When Amilie becomes pregnant by Jerome, Alfred divorces her.

Amilie marries Jerome.

They all live unhappily ever after.

The qualities that put This Side of Innocence on the 1946 bestseller list are untarnished by time.

The unusual plot is peopled by fascinating—though not likable—characters with complex and often confused motives.

Caldwell adds insightful musings on timeless themes like love, integrity, and tact.

The result is a novel with real staying power.

Look for it at your local library.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Benton’s Row Is Uneven and Unoriginal

If I were asked whether Frank Yerby’s Benton’s Row is

a) a typical Yerby novel
b) better than the typical Yerby novel
c) worse than the typical Yerby novel
d) all of the above

I’d choose D.

Benton’s Row is in three parts. The first is standard Yerby: Tom Benton, an ambitious poor boy, irresistible to women, achieves fame and fortune in America’s South before the Civil War.

Part two, set during during Reconstruction, focuses on Tom’s widow, Sarah, remarried to the local doctor, and the extended family of Tom Benton’s legitimate and bastard children.

Yerby, who usually uses paper dolls for his female characters, does a surprisingly good job portraying Sarah.

In this middle section, Yerby also surprises with his depiction of plantations of the interior South as an unpainted log homes and the planters as not substantially better off financially than their slaves.

Unfortunately, Yerby destroys the impact of his original elements by ending the middle section with an incident distressingly similar to a scene from Zane Grey’s  To the Last Man.

The third part of Benton’s Row is a hodgepodge of stories about Tom Benton’s progeny and grandchildren during and after World War I. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who — and even harder to care.

Benton’s Row
by Frank Yerby
Dial Press, 1954
280 pages
1954 bestseller #10
My grade: C-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni