A Song of Sixpence - A. J. Cronin
Cronin was in his late sixties when he embarked on an account of his years from six to sixteen. Besides having achieved mastery of his craft, he had gained a perspective that allowed him to tell his story with a compassion moderated by even-handed detachment. Laurie/Laurence isn’t romanticized nor dramatized; his commonness makes him accessible. When his widowed mother becomes romantically involved, his attitude and actions are such that, though we cringe at his selfishness, we understand it; he’s only fourteen, and he feels threatened. This episode succeeds in eliciting pity and regret. Of those who play a role in his life, there’s not one person, major or minor, that doesn’t attain a solid presence (often in a few sentences). Though some are far from beneficent, no one is a simply a villain. We first meet Laurie’s younger cousin, Nora, when his father dies (which occurs when the boy is twelve). After the funeral, Nora takes him on a tour of the farm where she lives, and she becomes exasperated by her inability to raise his spirits. Finally she says, “Will you stop it, man, for the love of God” and braces him against the wall of the barn and begins to butt him with her head. “The brush of her hair against my cheek, the warmth of her nearness, the determined encirclement of her arms, all this was strangely soothing.” Thus Nora’s character and Laurie’s feelings for her are established. We meet her again, when Laurence is sixteen. Laurie’s life had many dark phases; but whereas the boy had been resilient, events involving Nora cause him to descend into anger and despair. In portraying how crushing adult disappointments can be, Cronin drops his detachment. This change in tone may be justified, but I found it jarring. I was also disappointed with the hurried and scattered summarization that ends the book. Still, these missteps didn’t detract significantly from what is a truthful and highly readable piece of storytelling. As an indication of my involvement, I was often tempted to flip ahead a few pages to find out what happened next in this boy’s life.
Cress Delahanty - Jessamyn West
These interconnected stories (in the 1940s and ’50s they were parceled out as such to various magazines, including The New Yorker) follow a girl’s life from age twelve to eighteen. I survived the first pages, in which the budding young poet rhapsodizes, because I sighted the solid presence of her parents in the background. And once we get down to ordinary events I enjoyed a book which is – imagine this! – about a happy family. Mr. and Mrs. Delahanty love one another, are financially secure, and have no neuroses or health problems. I liked them; I liked the gentle humor (mostly embedded in dialogue); I liked the setting (a Southern California orange ranch). And I liked Cress. At least, I liked her in her younger years. At each stage she faces a situation and grows from it. This works nicely when the concerns are basically light and innocent. But when boys and sex get to be serious issues I lost touch. So, I think, did the author; from age fifteen on the episodes seem to be the product not of enthusiasm but of perseverance, with the goal being a full-length novel. This is most glaring in the brief final chapter, in which the dying grandfather makes a belated return appearance in order to impart the requisite message. The initial buoyancy and charm of this book was refreshing, but those elements waned with the onset of maturity. Kind of like in real life.
Strangers and Brothers - C. P. Snow
On the first page I was fully involved in a predicament; on the fourth page the main character, George Passant, makes a forceful appearance. In spite of personal risk to his position as an assistant solicitor in a law firm, George defends someone he believes is being unfairly victimized. This act of impetuous generosity makes a lasting impression (as does the celebration afterwards, when he takes a group of young men to a house of ill-repute, where all the girls know him by name). We soon learn that George has a lofty mission: he wants to teach his followers to break free of society’s conventions. All this was interesting in a cerebral way; there’s not much physical action but plenty of psychological ins and outs. Snow seemed to be exploring the question of what makes a life valuable, which is a laudable aim. But endings are important, and in the last sixty pages the book loses the precision and clarity that had been Snow’s strength. The closing scenes take place in a courtroom, where George is being tried for a petty swindle. Eliot, the first-person narrator – whose role throughout was to observe and give his judicious impressions – had always emphasized George’s strengths over his flaws, so when he demotes him to a mere self-deceiver all that has gone before is reduced to a misrepresentation. People’s attitudes begin flipping about; the narrator is suddenly endowed with the power of omniscience; we get a jumble of repetitive exposition. Ten more novels make up the Strangers and Brothers series, and this one closes on a note that suggests we haven’t seen the last of George. Eliot (once again in the ranks of an admirer) thinks “. . . both he and I were still eager for what life would bring him.” Though I don’t share their eagerness, I am curious.