I suspect the reason B.F.’s Daughter made the bestseller list in 1946 had more to do with post-war malaise than with John P. Marquand’s writing, good as it is.
Though its story seems out-of-date, the novel is still good reading.
B.F.’s Daughter by John P. Marquand
Little, Brown, 1946. 439 p. 1946 bestseller #9. My grade: B.
After her wealthy industrialist father dies, Polly Brett goes to Washington where her husband is churning out war propaganda.
She and Tom quarrel.
He goes off, ostensibly to take refuge in his work.
Polly has no trouble meeting men who are also alone in Washington. Although Polly sees a certain attraction in an affair, she backs away.
Then Polly runs into a long-time acquaintance who tells her “nothing matters that happened before the war.”
When Polly learns Tom has a mistress, she begins to feel perhaps her pre-war marriage doesn’t matter.
The characters in this novel are well-drawn, complex people. Contemporary readers may find them old-fashioned—imagine not having sex just out of a sense of personal integrity!—but they are none the less believable individuals.
Today the idea that one simply walks away from an unhappy marriage is taken as a truism rather than an epiphany.
That’s not a criticism of B.F.’s Daughter, but of our culture.
© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni
In H. M. Pulham, Esquire, novelist John P. Marquand provides readers with one of the greatest delights open to fiction readers: feeling superior to the characters.
Harry Pulham is a genuinely nice, average guy. He’s not too smart, or too rich, or too talented. He does his work, avoids the spotlight, never intrudes. Above all, he’s loyal.
But is he happy?
After his father’s death, Harry moved back to his small hometown, leaving the girl he loved in New York City. He married a girl he’d known for years. Harry and Kay have two children.
As his 25-year reunion nears, Harry’s college pals pop up again, especially Bill King. Bill and Kay go way back. Bill knows all about Harry and his old flame, too.
Readers see Harry’s marriage is on the brink of disaster, but Harry never sees the clues. It’s not that he’s just dense. He habitually thinks the best of people. He credits others with as much personal integrity as he has. To Harry, doing the right thing is more important than being happy.
Can this marriage be saved?
You’ll have to read the novel to find out.
H. M. Pulham, Esquire
By John P. Marquand
Little, Brown, 1941
1941 Bestseller # 7
My Grade: B-
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni
The 1951 bestseller list provides slim pickings for anyone looking for enduring stories, let alone great writing. A few months after having read the 1951 novels, I can recall little about any of them.
The best of the lot are The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk and Melville Goodwin, USA by John P. Marquand. Both these are stories that grew out of World War II, but neither is actually a war novel.
The Caine Mutiny is the story of a rebellion that grew out of boredom and the “what would happen if” thinking of a writer in the crew.
Melville Goodwin, USA is novel about a general with too little to do when the war is over and his wife whose life has been devoted to furthering her husband’s career.
You might not recall much of the characters or plot six months after laying down either the Wouk or the Marquand books, but you won’t have to drag your way through the pages.
Unfortunately, the threads that would make the novels universally memorable are buried in believable characters, plausible plots, and precise prose. You won’t come away from either book able to whistle its theme–which is a requirement of great fiction.
Linda Gorton Aragoni
In Melville Goodwin, USA , John P. Marquand looks at what happens to a professional soldier when the war is over.
The story is told by Sid Skelton, a radio broadcaster. As an Army PR officer during the war, he met and inadvertently pimped for General Mel Goodwin in Paris.
The Army asks Sid to shepherd the General through an interview with a noted journalist, fearing the general’s frankness might embarrass the military.
Sid and his wife find themselves confidants of the General and his wife, who has crocheted dish cloths and managed her husband’s career since his West Point days.
Meanwhile, Sid’s former girlfriend becomes the General’s mistress. He’s more innocent than lecherous: she’s more ambitious than infatuated.
Wife and mistress fight to turn the Goodwin into their idea of a successful man.
Until becoming embroiled in the Goodwin’s affairs, Sid had little use for the Army. He gradually comes to respect the General. Sid is sufficiently impressed to borrow some of the General’s tactics to unseat his business rival.
Marquand lays his plot skillfully, then lets the characters run the show. His pen lays bare the thin cover of civility that covers the power struggles of army officers, of broadcasters, and of ambitious women.
Melville Goodwin, USA
by John P. Marquand
Little, Brown, 1951
My grade A-
1951 bestseller # 7
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni
1949 was not a particularly good year for novels.
The best of the lot is a holdover from the 1948 bestseller list, Dinner at Antoine’s by Frances Parkinson Keyes.
The book, like all Keyes’ work, has a clever but plausible plot developed through memorable characters. And she writes well enough that her novels can be reread with pleasure.
Point of No Return by John P. Marquand is a better novel than Dinner at Antoine’s, but the elements that make it better from a literary standpoint make it less entertaining.
Marquand’s lead character, Charles Gray, is a solid, respectable, reliable banker, as dull as his name. Marquand tells how Charles almost stepped out of character once in his life.
That almost does Marquand in. A few months later, all I remembered was that the writing was wonderful. I couldn’t remember the character or plot at all.
The other books from the 1949 bestseller list are not worth picking up. Fortunately, there is some great reading on the 1939 bestseller list. I’ll begin looking at those novels this coming week.
Investment banker Charles Gray is not a man to take chances. He believes in preserving assets— emotional assets as well as financial ones.
In The Point of No Return, John P. Marquand explores the one time in his life when Charles almost stepped out of character.
When the book opens, Charles is waiting to hear whether he or Roger Blakesley will be tapped for the bank’s vacant vice presidency.
When the bank sends him to his hometown to check on collateral offered by a loan applicant, Charles reviews the youthful experiences that shaped him. His fear of taking risks is at least partially due to his father’s stock speculation and suicide in 1929.
When he gets to Clyde, Charles sees that his childhood best friend has climbed to the top of the local social and political power structure.
While Clyde views Charles as a successful New York banker, Charles realizes he is small potatoes in the Manhattan financial scene. He’s been careful and obsequious, but that’s not enough to guarantee success in a corporation.
Marquand is so skilled a writer that he makes an entertaining novel out of experiences that didn’t excite even their participants.
You won’t remember Point of No Return long, but you won’t be bored while you’re reading it.
The Point of No Return
By John P. Marquand
Little, Brown 1949
1949 Bestseller # 5
My Grade: B
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni