Australia Felix – Henry Handel Richardson
Ethel Florence Richardson chose to publish, in the early 1900s, under a male pseudonym. This Aussie lady had an ability to write narrative fiction that is Trollopian in its scope and flow; for four hundred pages I remained unflaggingly absorbed in the fortunes of Richard Mahoney. Over the several decades covered, we sees signs of emotional problems, such as his intense dislike of the godforsaken land he’s stuck in and his sense of isolation from the people around him. Yet he seems stable and sensible, he works hard to achieve a comfortable life as a doctor in frontier Australia, and he loves his wife. Polly is, for much of the book, presented as simple, obedient and nothing more (in Richard’s eyes “pure, clean and sweet”); the lack of conflict in their relationship is offset by a large cast of secondary characters, all with dilemmas. Things ramble along pleasurably, but at the end my suspicion that Richardson set out without a firm grasp as to where she was headed was solidified by some questionable plot twists. Richard is suddenly in the grip of a debilitating depression. Despite this he still has enough energy (and optimism) to sell all his worldly goods in preparation for an arduous return trip to England, where he will have to start over from scratch. Polly, who at this point has a mind of her own, is justifiably appalled. In the final scene they’re aboard a ship. As it departs, Richard asks Polly to come on deck; but she, “with an eye to the future, was already encoffined in her narrow berth.” I felt that the author had arranged a setup for the second installment of a trilogy: How will Richard and Polly fare in England? Read The Way Home and find out – and I care enough that I will. The faults of this novel, such as its haphazard structure, are offset by its strengths. Faults can even become virtues in the hands of a prodigious talent: that overly-large cast of peripheral characters, though often difficult to sort out, serve to create a colorful tapestry of life.
Amsterdam – Ian McEwan
The novel opens at a funeral for a woman whose descent began with a tingling in her arm; soon she’s engulfed in madness and pain. Vernon Halliday, a former lover, comments that she would have killed herself if she had been able to. He’s speaking to his “oldest friend” and another of her lovers, Clive Linley. Vernon is the editor of a newspaper, Clive a composer. Shortly after the funeral, Clive experiences a tingling in his hand; then Vernon begins to get the sense that he doesn’t exist. Worried that they will go the way of poor Molly, both men promise that, if one of them is disabled, the other will intercede and end his life. But the tingling and the feeling of non-existence disappear entirely from the book, and we go off into two separate story lines. Clive works on a symphony, and we get lengthy meditations on music and creativity. Quite boring stuff, though its inclusion boosts the word count above the novella category. As for Vernon, he’s gotten possession of photos of a would-be prime minister in drag, and decides to print them. The yellow journalism part is more lively, but at this point I felt mired in a deeply-ingrained grubbiness; not helping matters was the fact that the two main characters (and all minor ones) were eminently distasteful. Clive botches his symphony and Vernon gets fired as editor; both “friends” blame the other for their downfall and go into an attack mode that can only, considering its virulence, be attributed to mutual psychosis. And it’s here that the city of Amsterdam comes into play. Vernon invites himself there to attend a performance of Clive’s symphony. The men are pretending that they’ve patched things up, but they still despise one another. So what are they planning? It seems that in liberal Holland some unsavory types with medical degrees will, for a price, eliminate inconvenient relatives. McEwan had included the strange symptoms and the death pact at the beginning because each man intends to have the other killed. If all this seems inane, the final twelve page stretch is the capper. At a party Vernon and Clive have spiked drinks that they maneuver the other into drinking (“Cheers!”). Later, drugged and hallucinating, they’re visited in their hotel rooms by a doctor and his nurse (whom they both believe to be Molly); they joyfully sign release forms and are dispatched by injections. McEwan was credited by many critics as being witty and wicked, but flailing about with a barbed stick is neither. What is truly amusing about this nasty, empty little novel is that it won the Booker Prize.
The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
Wharton cared enough about her three characters and their predicament to build a solid foundation from which she could move into the rarefied realm of passion. At first she observes the rites and ceremonies of upper crust New Yorkers, circa 1870, with an amused detachment. But when the focus narrows to Newland Archer’s evolving and shifting feelings for two women, things darken. Newland loves Ellen but marries May. Timing and circumstances play a deciding role: if, before he met Ellen, he hadn't already been engaged to May (and thus committed, according to the dictates of society), all would be different. Wharton imparts an element of tragedy into this situation by making us believe that Newland and Ellen were meant for one another. His marriage to May is a mistake only in the light of his feelings for someone else. He and Ellen could cast convention aside, but she refuses to be part of destroying a relationship. Newland would destroy his marriage, for he finds it a prison keeping him from what he wants. He proposes to Ellen that they flee to another place where they will be “simply two human beings who love one another, and are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.” Ellen responds with: “Oh, my dear – where is that country? Have you ever been there?” She shares Newland’s feelings but not his romanticized viewpoint. In this novel of unconsummated love there’s one solitary kiss. May turns out to be resourceful in holding onto her marriage; a strategic deception brings this affair of the heart to an abrupt end. Ellen moves to Paris and Newland buckles down to a life as husband and father. The last chapter, which takes place twenty-six years later, was a risky proposition, but Wharton has such a firm grip on her material that she uses this new perspective to deepen the situation. We learn that Newland found fulfillment with May. Though he looks back at Ellen as “the flower of life” that he had missed, he doesn’t mourn the loss; he has relegated her to an unattainable vision whose rightful place is as a memory. The question of “What if?” has great weight. What would Newland’s and Ellen’s life have been, together? The ache that thought evokes attests to how fully this novel succeeds. *