Alice Adams seeks to rise above adolescence

dust jacket of Alice Adams + note about the accompanying review

Alice Adams lives with her bickering parents and slouching younger brother, Walter, in a begrimed house in an industrial American city at the end of World War I.

Alice is unhappily unmarried.

Alice’s attempts to set local fashions draws ridicule from girls with money and social standing.

Mrs. Adams is constantly nagging her husband about not providing the children with the advantages money can buy.

When Arthur Russell comes to town, Alice thinks he’s her last chance to make something of herself.

Mrs. Adams finally convinces her husband that the only chance Alice has of happiness is for him to lay aside his scruples, quit his job at Lamb and Company, and start a plant to manufacture glue using a process Mr. Lamb had paid him to develop years before.

When it comes out that Walter has been embezzling at work, the family’s hopes of upward mobility are crushed forever.

Mr. and Mrs. Adams are vivid characters, and Booth Tarkington makes Alice and Walter very believable young adults trapped in adolescence.

It’s easy to see where Alice get’s her petulance and drama, where Walter gets his refusal to face facts.

Like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Tarkington’s Alice Adams shows the effects of on the children of a silly mother mated to a husband without the moral fiber to counterbalance his wife’s bad influence.

Alice Adams ends on an upbeat note, but that note isn’t strong enough to overcome the impression that Alice will never get a husband and never be satisfied either without one or with one.


Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington, Grosset & Dunlap, 1921. 434 pp.


This review is one of the Great Penformances’ occasional reviews of influential novels that didn’t make the bestseller list.  Although Alice Adams was not a bestseller for the prolific Booth Tarkington, he won his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Alice Adams. His first, in 1919, was for The Magnificent Ambersons.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Amateur Gentleman Is Amateurish Novel

The Amateur Gentleman follows the adventures of Barnabas Barty, son of a champion prizefighter. Thanks to an unexpected inheritance, Barnabas has cash to “learn to be a gentleman.”

The Amateur Gentleman reads like a first novel, packed with episodes and characterizations drawn on the author’s reading in Dickens, Fielding, and Trollope. Had he been writing today, Jeffrey Farnol would have put in zombies and a werewolf.

The windfall in the opening chapter sets the direction Farnol takes in the remainder of the novel. Something unexpected happens in each chapter, and each unexpected occurrence is less plausible than the one before.

Barnabas is as implausible as the plot in which he’s tangled. Even before he begins his lessons in genteel deportment, Barnabas can tame a wild horse and charm an elderly duchess with equal ease.

Barnabas has all the manly virtues and roughly a quarter of the manly brain. His virtue is apparent to everyone except his enemies and the lovely heiress he wants to marry, all of whom are his intellectual equals.

Farro’s whimsical chapter titles are the only hint of the delightful light entertainment he went on to produce once he got his reading out of his system.

The Amateur Gentleman
By Jeffery Farnol
Illus. Herman Pfeifer
1913 Bestseller #6
My grade C-
Project Gutenberg EBook #9879
My grade C

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

His Children’s Children Disappointingly Good

Rufus takes an axe to his home's rooftop statue
Rufus takes an axe to his home’s rooftop statue

Arthur Train’s His Children’s Children is too good not to be better.

The novel focuses on the children and grandchildren of Peter “the Pirate” Kayne, an old rip who made his pile in mining and railroads and used it to start his family up the social ladder. By 1921, his son Rufus has achieved social respectability; his granddaughters have achieved social acceptance.

As the novel opens, lawyer Lloyd Maitland is assigned to deal with Rufus’s attempt to get his daughter Claudia and her children away from her philandering husband.

The story quickly veers off to the unwed Kayne sisters, both of whom seem to Lloyd to have no moral values. That doesn’t stop Lloyd being smitten with Diana.

The novel is an indictment of materialism and bad parenting. Train takes care to make his case largely through dialogue, underscoring it with descriptions that impale characters on his pen point.

Train never lets go of his thesis, but he seems to lose the thread of the plot. When the curtain comes down on a contrived ending, situations have changed but people have not.

We have to put up with such reality in life; in a novel, it feels like an insult.

His Children’s Children
by Arthur Train
Illus. By Charles D. Mitchell
1923, Grosset & Dunlap
391 pages
1923 bestseller #2
 

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mary’s Neck Pleasant as Ocean Breeze in August

Mary’s Neck is a breezy, lighthearted account of a midwestern family’s summer at a New England seashore resort patronized by “the right sort of people” at the height of the Jazz Age.

Mr. Massey is a jovial businessman who wants to be friends with everyone. Mrs. Massey longs be a leading family in Mary’s Neck. Enid and Clarissa are primarily interested in securing the society of boys with sports cards, hefty allowances, and good prospects.

The Masseys’ wear their aspirations like targets painted on their shirts. People can’t help taking shots at them.

The Masseys are regularly cheated by the shrewd Yankees they think so provincial. They fare no better at the hands of those they consider socially prominent.

Booth Tarkington plays this story strictly for laughs, and he provides plenty of them.

The adolescents are adolescent, which is always funny to all but the adolescents. Mrs. Massey is too dim to be funny, but Mr. Massey is sharp enough to learn to pass the losing ticket on to someone else. Tarkington keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek throughout the book.

Mary’s Neck is a pleasant diversion for those days when all you want is a laugh at someone else’s expense.

Mary’s Neck
Booth Tarkington
Doubleday, Doran, 1932
318 pages
 
©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Kingdom Round the Corner is optimistic but dull

The Kingdom Round the Corner, Coningsby Dawson’s 1921 romance, is distanced by omniscient narration, riddled by implausible coincidences, and ultimately sunk by a main character as colorless as cream cheese.

In March 1919, Lord Taborley, familiarly called “Tabs,” leaves the service by the door of a hospital.  Optimistically Tabs believes, “We find everything that we’ve lost or longed for, if we’ll only press on.”

He finds his beautiful, prewar girl friend has already pressed on.

Terry was 17 when Tabs left. At 22, she’s madly in love with a general who came up through the ranks. Before the war, General Braithwaite was Tabs’s valet.

Over innumerable pots of tea, the characters discuss the impact of the 1914-18 war. Terry is impatient for “what we’ve spent in the lost years,” while her aging father wants “the old world back—the womanly women, everybody labeled, and Beethoven.” Braithwaite wants a meritocracy. Tabs is comfortable with his inherited title.

Through Terry’s family, Tabs meets a lovely, thrice-widowed woman and her even more beautiful widowed sister.

Which of the three beauties will get Tabs?

Does anyone really care?

The Kingdom Round the Corner: A Novel  Project
By Coningsby Dawson
Illustrated by W.D. Stevens
1921 bestseller #10
Gutenberg E-Book #25702
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni