What’s for Dinner? - James Schuyler
Like Alfred and Guinevere, about 90% of this novel is made up of conversation (including the title). We learn about people not by what they do or think but by what they say; this approach to telling a story is fresh and engaging, and for a long stretch I enjoyed the book. Schuyler’s subjects are marriage, infidelity, alcoholism, mental illness (a large portion of the action takes place at a mental institution). He treats these serious issues with a light touch – too light, as it turns out. He should have heeded the advice that one of his characters gives a new patient when he starts weaving a belt in craft therapy: “And always pull the knot really tight, or it comes out looking funny. The first belt I made hung all crooked, because I didn’t do that.” Schuyler’s knots were too loose in that he never gave the serious issues the weight they deserved. Near the end he disposes of people and their problems in a callous way; even his language becomes crude, as if he were expressing annoyance with the whole enterprise. There’s also a lot of filler. Too much space is devoted to the group therapy sessions, and the only purpose the teenage twin boys serve is to trade vulgar remarks. Alfred and Guinevere was well-nigh perfect; this book hangs all crooked.
Castle Rackrent & Ennui - Maria Edgeworth
Rackrent is more successful because it’s shorter and is narrated in the voice of Thady Quirk, faithful servant to generations of Irish Rackrents. He chronicles the foibles of the various “Sirs” who take possession of the estate. They come across as shabby ne’er-do-wells; but as long as they give “entertainments” and are free with their money, Thady holds them in high esteem. One problem with the three times longer Ennui is that its premise is unsustainable. How much can you say about a man who has everything and is bored by it all? Not much. Instead, Edgeworth turns this into the story of the moral education of a man who learns to appreciate the higher values. Unfortunately, she does it in a preachy way. I liked the bored and irresponsible Lord Glenthorne more that the noble prig he becomes. When he finds out that he’s not really a Lord (babies switched at birth), he relinquishes his estate to a happy blacksmith who’s the rightful heir. Then, as Christopher O’Donoghoe, he embarks on life as an ordinary man. Edgeworth could have given him a harsh dose of reality; instead he’s immediately befriended by a wealthy mentor who admires his virtuous character. So Christopher is still rubbing elbows with the aristocracy. At a party he meets Cecilia, of the “celestial countenance.” At the end of the novel he’s married to her and is a successful lawyer; even his estate is returned to him (the blacksmith makes a mess of his elevated station in life). I felt gypped.
What Maisie Knew - Henry James
I’ve criticized authors for having a Henry James-like prose style. Now I can criticize The Master himself. I liked the novel’s premise – a little girl being shuttled about by adults – but James’s convoluted wordiness doesn’t reveal emotions, it obfuscates them: “ . . . if he had an idea at the back of his head she had also one in a recess as deep, and for a time, while they sat together, there was an extraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, his vision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision.” Untangling such nuances wore me down; I began to think, in exasperation, “Just spit it out.” As an experiment, I took the book’s opening sentence and simplified it. James: “The child was provided for, but the new arrangement was inevitably confounding to a young intelligence intensely aware that something had happened which must matter a great deal and looking anxiously out for the effects of so great a cause.” Me: “Though the child was provided for, the new arrangement was perplexing to her, and she was anxious about how her life would be affected.” The elegance of James’s sentence has been lost; but, if I have to choose, I’ll take clarity over beauty. And I’ll always choose truth over falsity. James’s main goal was to capture the sensibilities of a little girl. But his Maisie has only one dimension: she’s an analyzer of adult feelings and motivations. She’s not a real child; Maisie is Henry James.
Buttonwood - Maritta Wolff
In none of the four novels I’ve read by Wolff is the prose polished, but this time it’s downright sloppy (her overuse of modifiers is a glaring problem). Why didn’t an editor at Random House do some work on the manuscript? And why didn’t Wolff learn the finer points of her craft? Another question is, Why do I read her? She has a gift for narrative, and I find the dilemmas she sets up to be engrossing. In this outing a woman is hooked on TV soap operas; in a way, Buttonwood is an old-fashioned soap opera. Not that it’s without depth and insight. Wolff’s examination of a marriage in the process of falling apart is convincing. However, she gives intimations of a mysterious problem (homosexuality?) separating the young couple, but never brings to light what that problem is. In the case of the main character, she does disclose his secret life in the final pages. But, after all the buildup, my response was “That’s it?” On the back inside cover of the book (I bought it secondhand) someone wrote the following: “Dull most of the way through small mid-western town to a tacked-on unreal ending that reveals Paul’s true attachment.”