Best of 1925’s bestsellers are not so hot

The best of the 1925 bestsellers are none too good for contemporary readers. Although some are well-written, they are all museum pieces: They take readers to times and mindsets light years away from contemporary culture.

Aside from  The Little French Girl and Arrowsmith, there aren’t any novels on the 1925 list whose plot I could remember a month after I finished the book. (The Little French Girl spent two years on the bestseller list. I reviewed it along with the 1924 bestsellers and it was my top pick for 1924 as well as one of my picks for the best of 2014 anniversary-year novels.)

In all honesty, I’m not sure I’d have remembered Arrowsmith if I hadn’t seen the film version, which, unfortunately, does justice to Sinclair Lewis’s novel.

With that discouraging introduction, I’ll suggest these may be worth a look:

  • The Perennial Bachelor by Anne Parrish is fascinating—but depressing—glimpse into the nineteenth century culture in which not only did men expect their female kinfolk to serve them, but the women expected it, too.
  • The Green Hat by Michael Arden is interesting today primarily for its technique.  Neither plot nor characters are strong enough to be remembered for long.
  • The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy has to be my third choice. It’s not a book I liked, but Kennedy’s writing is good.

My next blog post will preview the bestselling novels of 100 years ago where, I hope, we’ll find a wider selection of enduring novels.

Which 1925 bestsellers are your top picks?

It’s time for readers to express their opinions about what endures of the 1925 bestseller list. You can pick up to three titles.

As always, the comments section is open to anyone who wants to do more than just tick the box.

My top choices list will be posted next Tuesday.

One Increasing Purpose seeks answer to “Why me?”

In One Increasing Purpose, A. S. M. Hutchinson presents a nice guy, Simon “Sim” Paris, who survived World War I without a scratch.

Sim  wonders why he was spared.

One Increasing Purpose by A. S. M. Hutchinson

Little, Brown,and Company, 1925,  448 pp. 1925 bestseller #10. My grade: C+.

All his family call on Sim’s sympathy.

Andrew, Sim’s oldest brother, is married to a woman temperamentally her husband’s opposite; after 10 years of marriage they are finding passion a poor substitute for shared values.

Sim’s other brother, Charles, is fond of his wife and she of him, but their relationship ends with fondness.

Looking for a sympathetic ear for his own problems, Sims looks up girl he’d known before the war. When Sim tell Elizabeth he’s convinced he was spared for a purpose, she says the purpose “is of God.”

Sim spends the rest of the novel trying to find God’s purpose, while simultaneously trying to help his brothers and sisters-in-laws with their marital problems.

Sims is the sort of person you’d want as a friend, but he’s awfully dull as a male lead. Sim’s declaration of undying love is, “Elizabeth,” which is not a particularly memorable line.

To get the mess untangled, Hutchinson resorts to a deus ex machina, which perhaps is appropriate for a protagonist whose statement of faith is “Christ the Common Denominator.”

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Carolinian is saved by its subplot

The Carolinian is a historical novel set in South Carolina in the early days the American Revolution.

Rafael Sabatini’s novel fails as a romance—its loving couple don’t trust each other an inch—but a supporting plot almost makes up for the book’s predictable and silly love story.

The Carolinian by Rafael Sabatini

Grosset & Dunlap, 1924,  414 pp. 1925 bestseller # 9. My grade: C.

Cover of 1925 edition of The Carolinian: title and author name in black type on blue cover.As the novel opens, Harry Latimer’s fiance, Myrtle Carey, has returned his ring upon learning he’s joined the Sons of Liberty.

Harry suspects fortune-hunting, English army officer Capt. Mandeville has inserted a spy into the rebel cell.

That’s the only time in the novel, Harry gets something right: Harry has the psychological perceptivity of a hedgehog, and Myrtle is his soul-mate.

The novel’s real interest is lawyer John Rutledge.

Carolinians select Rutledge to lead them in the defense of Charles Town and the fight for independence from the Crown, despite his tendency to be somewhat imperial himself.

Fearing the town’s residents will be slaughtered by overwhelming odds, Rutledge initiates negotiations for surrender.

While passions flare around him, Rutledge scribbles away with a pencil, oblivious to everything but the document on which he’s working.

Although the Rutledge incident didn’t happen the way Sabatini tells it, it should have: It’s far more exciting than Harry and Myrtle.

 © 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Perennial Bachelor a portrait of senseless waste

The title character of The Perennial Bachelor, Victor Campion, is a virtual nonentity to all but his immediate family, including Anne Parrish’s readers.

Victor was his parents eighth child but first son.

The Perennial Bachelor by Anne Parrish

Harper & Brothers, 1925, 334 pp. 1925 bestseller #8. My grade: B.

Only three of the Campion girls lived past childhood. Victor was born the evening his father died in a riding accident.

Margaret Campion is a lovely but stupid woman. At her death, she makes Maggie, the eldest daughter, promise to take care of Victor.

Victor becomes his sisters’ life as he was their mother’s.

Parrish presents the story in not-quite-in-focus memories of various of the “three Campion girls” and Victor.

Readers see each sister trying desperately to conceal from the other sisters the pain of sacrificing her own dreams so Victor can have the best.

Details about the clothing, household habits, handicraft projects, and social activities of the family members from the Civil War period through the Jazz Age reveal the extent to which the Campion’s fortunes decline as they grow older.

The Campions are pathetic when they are young. As they get old, the senseless waste of four lives is painful to watch.

Readers will want a sunny novel as a chaser after The Perennial Bachelor.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Arrowsmith stumbles and bogs down

Sinclair Lewis says Arrowsmith is the biography of a young man who was “in no degree a hero, who regarded himself as a seeker after truth yet who stumbled and slid back all his life and bogged himself in every obvious morass.”

The novel also stumbles and bogs down.

Arrowsmith in laboratory graces 1952 dust jacket of novel

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

©1925. 1952 ed. Harcourt, Brace & World, includes a biographical sketch of Sinclair Lewis and “How Arrowsmith was written,” both by Barbara Grace Spayd. 464 pp. 1925 bestseller #7. My grade: B.

A drunken doctor lets Martin Arrowsmith read his Gray’s Anatomy and points him toward medical school.

Martin takes a BA, a MD, and a wife. He wants to do research, but is forced into general practice to support Leora.

He’s hopeless as a doctor: He has no people skills.

A lucky discovery leads him into a research job under the great Max Gottlieb.

Martin wants respect among scientists, but he’s willing to throw even that away when his emotions are touched.

An epidemic on a Caribbean Island gives Martin a chance to run a controlled test of a vaccine. Martin promises Gottlieb that  he won’t give in to demands to supply it to all residents.

Lewis makes Martin, Leora, and Gottleib plausible, if not particularly likeable. He sketches minor characters with broad strokes of sarcasm.

The total effect is neither serious enough or funny enough to satisfy today’s reader, but the Pulitzer committee thought the novel worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dual mysteries revealed in The Green Hat

As its subtitle implies, Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat: A Romance for a Few People is an unconventional novel.

The story is told by an unidentified writer who meets and has sex with Iris Storm, the twin sister of Gerald Marsh, the drunk who lives above his flat.

The Green Hat: A Romance for a Few People by Michael Arlen

Robin Clark, 1991 (paper), 244 pages. 1925 bestseller #5.  My Grade B.

"The Green Hat" cover shows woman in green hat driving autoThrough mutual acquaintances narrator hears of, and occasionally sees, Iris afterwards.

He manages to piece together her story, discover why Iris and her brother were estranged, why Gerald drank, why Iris, so fastidious about most things, was careless about sex.

The mystery-romance is under-laid by the mystery of the narrator. When readers first meet him, he’s what used to be called precious: affected, pretentious, full of self-importance.

As he gets interested in untangling the Iris Storm mystery, he has no time to maintain the persona.

Readers see the narrator maturing as he watches Iris maturing.

Behind both is the childish, 1920’s overindulgence of young people who survived World War I.

Arlen has no great truths to tell, but his technique alone is worth seeing.

 © 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The glory of Glorious Apollo has dulled

Glorious Apollo is a fictional biography of the 18th century Romantic poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Byron comes from a family noted for philandering and profligacy. He achieves notoriety in those areas before he achieves fame as a poet.

Glorious Apollo by E. Barrington*

Dodd, Mead and Company, 1925, 371 pages.  1925 bestseller #4. My grade: C+.

portrait of Lord Byron
George Gordon, Lord Byron

Byron is,  as one of his lovers says, “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

When his poems become valuable, Byron refuses to accept money for them (It wouldn’t be gentlemanly), but he’ll gladly marry for money.

Byron selects a unimpeachable young woman, Anne Milbanke, scorning her almost from the moment of the marriage.

When tales of her husband’s relationships become common knowledge — including one with his half sister – Anne secures a separation.

Byron goes into exile in Europe. He is such a celebrity that a telescope is set up in Geneva so British tourists can watch his home.

Aided by booze, drugs, and the poet Shelley, Byron sinks further into degradation. He’s dead at age 33.

An encyclopedia entry is more explicit and titilating than the portrait produced by author E. Barrington*. Through generalizations and circumlocutions, she manages to make her novel bland almost to the point of boredom.

Today’s readers will find little to applaud in Glorious Apollo other than fragments of history.

*E. Barrington is a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Louisa Moresby Adams Beck

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Keeper of the Bees nothing to buzz about

A wounded WWI vet walks away from an Army hospital rather than be sent to a facility where doctors predict his weakened body would succumb to tuberculosis.

Seeking surf and sun, Jamie MacFarlane hitchhikes and limps to the California coast, arriving just in time to summon medical help for the Master Bee Keeper.

The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter

1925; republished, Indiana University Press, 1991, paper, 505 pp. 1925 bestseller #3. My grade: C+.

Honey bee on flower is photo on "The Keeper of the Bees"Aided by a widowed neighbor and Little Scout, who is learning the apiary business, Jamie throws himself into getting his health back and using it to carry on the Master’s business.

Gene Stratton-Porter does her usual lyrical magic with her nature descriptions, but she fails characterization. Ten-year-old Little Scout alternatively sounds like Penrod and a Cambridge don—and Stratton-Porter is unable to make the plot grow out of her characterization.

The novel is full of loose ends and dropped threads, like Jamie’s walking away from the Brunson family who fed and sheltered him.

The action is further muddled by plot elements that mysteriously appear.  For example, a trunk develops a hidden lock between its first mention and its appearance as central part of the action.

Stratton-Porter was killed in an accident before this novel was published.

Had she lived to do some rewriting, The Keeper of the Bees might have been much better.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Constant Nymph a novel about narcissists

Though penned in the 1920s, The Constant Nymph has a feel of the Woodstock Festival about it.

Cover art for "The Constant Nymph" shows girl with bunch of flowers

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

William Heinemann Ltd., 1924; The Dial Press, Virago Modern Classic with  introduction by Anita Brookner, 1984, 336 pages.  1925 bestseller #2.  My grade: B-.

Albert Sanger, a 1920’s equivalent of a flower child, composes unappreciated work in an Alpine chalet in the company of a “circus” of children by two wives, his current mistress, and whoever takes him up on his lavish invitations to drop in.

Fellow composer Lewis Dodd, one of the more frequent visitors, has captivated 14-year-old Tessa.

When Sanger dies suddenly, a cousin approaching spinsterhood swoops in and carts Tessa and the younger children to England to be properly educated.

Cousin Florence also snares Lewis and carts him home to England to properly marketed.

The Sanger children and Lewis don’t take well to Florence’s intentions. Lewis realizes Tessa has always been faithful to him— meaning she’s always given him his own way—and he takes steps to secure her continued constancy.

Margaret Kennedy’s romantic characters are interested in nothing but themselves. Florence and her father, the most unromantic characters in the book, are the only ones that take any interest in people who can’t help them.

Kennedy spins a good yarn, but it’s essentially a trivial yarn. If the novel is to have any point, the reader will have to insert it.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni