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.
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.
In 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