In Ten North Frederick, John O’Hara presents a fictional history of the upper echelons of society in a small Pennsylvania city in the first half of the twentieth century.
When the novel opens, it’s 1945 and Joseph B. Chapin has died.
Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara
Random House, 1955. 408 pages. 955 bestseller #5. My grade: B-.
Chapins have lived at 10 N. Frederick since 1881. The family is at the top of the local social ladder by virtue of old money and old virtues.
Joe had the personality to succeed in Philadelphia or New York, but he felt—wisely, it turns out—his talents were only Gibbsville-sized.
Joe married a local girl who saw Joe’s limitations as an asset: She could own him.
By Gibbsville standards, Joe and Edith had a happy marriage.
Nobody on the outside saw how miserable they were.
O’Hara’s revelations of the secrets of “the best families” wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in most circles today. Even by 1950’s standards, O’Hara was not a pornographer.
At the end of the novel, Joe Chapin is buried, and people are wondering what his widow will do now.
Readers are no wiser.
They know a lot about Edith Chapin that she wouldn’t wish known, but they don’t know Edith Chapin.
For all his skill in plotting and dialogue, O’Hara never is able to make Edith more than a character in a history book.
© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Sermons and Soda Water is a three-volume set of novellas that John O’Hara wrote while working on a big novel.
Each story is told by a writer from Gibbsville, Pa. (O’Hara’s hometown) who has gone on to bigger places, bigger things. In middle age, each of the writers looks back with a combination of nostalgia and remorse to his youth in the years between Prohibition and Pearl Harbor.
The first novella, The Girl on the Baggage Truck, explores the difference between the kinds of things that matter to people and the facts that appear in their obituaries.
The second, Imagine Kissing Pete, is about a girl who marries on the rebound and discovers the wimp has a totally unexpected savage sexuality.
The third, We’re Friends Again, is a tale about a two loveless marriages, one of which is accompanied by a enduring affair.
O’Hara’s characters live for booze, sex, gossip, and what generally passes in their set as a good time. The writer-narrators blame the shallowness of their group on Prohibition, as if the individuals bear no responsibility for their actions.
O’Hara’s keen observation and ear for dialogue make the characters live, but nothing can make them attractive.
Fortunately, you won’t remember any of them long.
Sermons and Soda Water
by John O’Hara
Random House, 1960
Vol 1. The Girl on the Baggage Truck
Vol 2 Imagine Kissling Pete
Vol 3 We’re Friends Again
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni