Successful Novels Reviewed in 2013 Define Success

In a 1985 introduction to a novel I’m to review here in 2014, John W. Aldridge had this to say about American novels:

Until fairly recently in this country it was possible for novels to be both serious and popular without being in any way cheap, titillating, escapist, or, for that matter, depressing. They could often be of high literary quality and at the same time offer not only entertainment, but something instructive about the nature of  American society—the look and feel of the land, the manners and morals of the people. There was a time, in short, when certain novels written for the general reading audience neither pandered to the worst tastes of that audience nor showed discomfort in speaking intelligently  to it.

Among the bestsellers of yesteryear that I reviewed for Great Penformances in 2013, 10 stand out in my mind as fitting Aldridge’s criteria. Each has something to say about the definition of success and the means of achieving it.

In  Unleavened Bread, Robert Grant paints a vivid portrait of Selma White who believes she deserves to be a success at everything because she is “by instinct, by heritage, and without education”  superior to every one else. Selma and her equally self-deluded third husband prove that whatever success may be, it’s not something to which people are naturally entitled.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim is the lightest of my 10 top picks of the year’s reading. In it, four very different English women, previously strangers, rent a medieval Italian castle together for a month of sunshine and wisteria. In addition to the respite they knew they needed, they find self-knowledge, friendship, and love —  elements of a successful life.

Cover, Wanderer of the Wasteland The Wanderer of the Wasteland by Zane Grey has little in common with The Enchanted April except that in both novels the setting plays a pivotal role.    In The Wanderer, the Death Valley setting is the adversary; success is as simple — and as complicated — as surviving another day.

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada is a story of human endurance in a different setting: Germany after World War I.  In Fallada’s story, a very poor, touchingly young couple try to create a home for themselves and their child in a society crippled by war and the economic sanctions imposed by the victorious allies. As in Zane Grey’s novel, simply surviving another day is a success.

So Little Time by John P. Marquand is a novel about enduring a situation more familiar to most readers than survival in Death Valley or a conquered city.  Middle aged Jeff Wilson realizes he’s not achieved the success he’d hope for as a dramatist and has few years left in which to write Broadway’s greatest hit.   Should he attempt it or admit great drama is beyond his ability? Could he live with himself if he tried and failed? Could he live with himself if he never tried?

James Hilton’s Time and Time Again is another novel about a middle aged man who realizes he’ll never rise to the top of his profession. Having missed the years his son changed from boy to young man in the safety of America during World War II, Charles “Stuffy” Anderson hopes to re-establish a relationship with his son on an adult level. Hilton uses the story of their reunion to explore the meaning of a life well lived.

Betty Smith offers a different perspective achieving success in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In Smith’s novel, a city family living on love and what the mother earns scrubbing floors pushes its children to achieve something better with their lives through the traditional American methods of schooling and hard work.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is gritty and realistic at the same time it’s uplifting and hopeful.

Another novel that merges realism with zest for living is Louis Bromfield’s Mrs. Parkington. Mrs. Parkington is a  feisty widow who finds herself having to bail out her adult children from the situations into which their stupidity and self-centeredness land them. Mrs. Parkington is a model of how to grow old exuberantly, in spite of one’s offspring.

 The Sand Pebbles book jacket by Richard McKennaIn The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Gooden the offspring are definitely in control. When their mother runs off to Italy with her lover, the Clavering children follow to bring her home. They manage to drive a wedge between the couple. Readers can explore the ramifications of the question, “How much do parents owe to their children?” through observing what happens at the Villa Fiorita.

The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna is a novel in which no one has control. The novel follows a Navy seaman with a passion for engines who is serving on an aging gunboat. The boat is patrolling the Yangtze River when China erupts into violence, bringing the Communists to power. The crew and their on-shore friends and acquaintances give McKenna ample opportunity to look at multiple ways of defining success.

There you have the 10 novels I reviewed this year that I’m most likely to go back to reread at least once more — which surely is sign of a successful novel.

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mothers in Novels: Five Memorable Ones

Reading novels reminds us that there are all kinds of mothers, some of whom would never inspire a Hallmark card.

In honor of Mother’s Day, here are capsule summaries of five novels whose main character is a mother. Some of the novels will make you wish its leading lady had been your mother. Others will make you immensely grateful for the mother you had.

Three Loves, A. J. Cronin’s 1932 bestseller, is a novel about a woman who views herself as selflessly devoted to her family. The family views her as selfishly controlling. What happens when the devoted wife and mother realizes her devotion is rejected makes for riveting reading.

The Iron Woman by Margaret Deland  is novel for puzzle lovers. The novel follows four children as they attempt to carry out, against the wishes of their two mothers, marital plans made one summer afternoon under an apple tree. One of the mothers is the formidable owner of Maitlin Iron Works. The other is an equally formidable genteel widow. As to which is the better mother, there’s no contest. Readers must decide which of the two is the stronger.

The Family by Nina Fedorova (1940) is the story of a Russian emigrant family living in China in 1937. When the Japanese invade China, the mother has to decides to send the children off to what she can only hope will be a better life. Then she picks up the pieces of her life, and builds a new family in Tientsin.

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers Barnes was not only a bestseller two years in a row, but garnered the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Its leading lady, Jane Ward, leads an unremarkable life. Always comfortably well-off, she makes a happy marriage and has three children. In the 1920s when her children are grown and have children of their own, Jane reflects on her life and wonders if she made the right choices.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden takes a ‘sixties look at a mother whose life is not all that different from Jane Ward’s, but who makes different choices.