My picks of the 1932 top selling novels

None of the novels on the 1932 bestseller list are great books. Three of them, however, are  insightful character studies that are well worth reading today.

First place in my list is the 10th place novel on the list: Three Loves by A. J. Cronin.  Cronin tells the story of a passionate woman who devotes herself first to her husband, then to her son, and then to God, only to find none of them is willing to do what she wants them to do. Three Loves, in my opinion, is Cronin’s best novel, far better than the medical-religious tales for which he is best known.

My second place honors are shared by two novels shaped in very different ways by the French battlefields of World War I.

Magnolia Street by Louis Golding looks at the relationship—or more precisely the lack of relationship—between Jews and gentiles on a single English city block.  As a novel, Magnolia Street is disjointed and repetitious; as a living microcosom, it’s heartbreaking.

Old Wine and New by Warwick Deeping tells the story of  returning vet who finds himself old, redundant, and unworthy of notice by the bright young things who weren’t over there.   Solid story telling and  characters who do whatever’s necessary to get up after life’s hard knocks make this novel good reading.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

What novels do you recommend from 1932?

You can use the simple poll to select three of the 1932 bestselling novels that you would recommend to other readers.

If you want to add a rationale for your choices, you can use the comment box.  All comments are moderated to cut down on spam.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Three Loves Reveals One Controlling Woman

Old photos of women

If you expect A. J. Cronin’s Three Loves to be one of his typical heartwarming tales of a dedicated doctor, you are in for a shock.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Lucy Murray married Frank Moore, an easy-going commercial traveler, whom she loves as much for what she thinks she can mold him into as for what he is. She’s willing to do anything for Frank except let Frank decide what he wants done.

Frank’s death in a boating accident for which Lucy was really responsible leaves her to raise their son, Peter, alone. She’s willing to accept any hardship to see that Peter becomes a doctor.

Lucy wrangles her way into Frank’s old job, and does it better than he. When the firm is sold, she is forced to take the only job available: collecting rent in the slums.

Peter gets his degree, but marries a rich girl whose father made his fortune renting the slum dwellings where Lucy collected rents. Lucy’s fortunes sink lower.

She wanders into a church where she falls in love with Jesus and decides to enter holy orders. Instead of the ecstatic spiritual union she seeks, she finds debilitating emotional and physical deprivation.

Lucy’s personality mingles resourcefulness, perseverance, and loyalty with a selfish passion for control, which she calls love. Having established her essential characteristics, Cronin turns her loose and watches what happens.

The novel is uneven. It would be stronger without plot elements Cronin introduces only to drop them again. But despite its flaws, Three Loves is a compelling portrait that readers won’t soon forget.

Three Loves
A. J. Cronin
Little, Brown, 1932
Pyramid Books, 1960
1932 Bestseller #10

Photo credit: “Old photos”  by juliaf

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Inheritance a Study in Chips from Old Blocks

Loom in New Lanark Mill
Phyllis Bentley’s Inheritance follows two intertwined Yorkshire families, the Oldroyds and the Bamforths, for almost 120 years.

The story begins in 1812. William Oldroyd decides to mechanize his woolen mill, a move that will put many workers out of jobs. Joe Bamforth, a foreman whose job is secure, joins his fellow mill hands, taking the Luddite oath. A quartet of Luddites murder the elder Oldroyd. Although Joe is guiltless, he chooses to be hanged with his mates.

Young Will takes over the business, spurning Mary Oldroyd whom he loves and who, unknown to Will, carries his child. Much later, as a widower, Will takes Mary as his second wife and acknowledges his son Jonathan, to the distress of the children of both wives.

In the decades through World War I, the Oldroyd’s financial fortunes rise and the Bamforth’s decline.

The Oldroyds are respected for financial savvy, the Bamforths for their moral standards.

The Oldroyds scramble to stay on top; the Bamforths reach a hand to help others rise.

Bentley is superb at showing ordinary people caught up in historic events. Readers can learn a great deal about the contemporary economic situation from this novels. The Luddites, rather than being old-fashioned fuddy-duddies, seem very much like contemporary workers sucked into the Occupy movement.

Bentley’s characters, however, are bundles of character traits rather than true individuals. The children in the book, in particular, appear to replicas of their dominant parent from the moment of birth. At the last, Bentley’s novel sinks beneath the implausibility of a preteen jumping from a train to change the world.

Phyllis Bentley
MacMillan, 1931
1932 Bestseller #9
592 pages

Photo credit: Loom in  in New Lanark Mill, Scotland uploaded by hazelharp

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Magnificent Obsession Is Not Even Memorable

 Old Medical Books

Magnificent Obsession
is one of Lloyd C. Douglas’s string of forgettable novels about the psychological benefits of practicing New Testament principles.

If you read White Banners or Green Light, you’ll find this novel familiar. Only the names have been changed to protect the author’s royalties.

In this novel, a neurosurgeon learns that if he does good deeds in secret, he is rewarded financially. He records his philanthropic experiences of not letting his right hand know what his left hand is doing (very tough for a surgeon) in secret code in a diary.

After Hudson’s death, the wealthy young n’er-do-well who deciphers the code is inspired to replace Hudson. In two pages, Bobby Merrick goes from ready-to-flunk med school to head of the Hudson Clinic.

Bobby not only becomes as good a doctor as his hero, he saves the doctor’s beloved daughter from a life of dissipation. He also wins the hero’s widow.

Douglas mashes romance and religion into a soggy pulp. Fortunately, the plot is so contrived and the characters so predictable that you’ll forget the book within an hour of finishing reading it.

Magnificent Obsession
Lloyd C. Douglas
Peoples Book Club, 1929
330 pages
1932 Bestseller #8
My Grade: C-

Photo credit: “Old Medical Books”  uploaded by aerogurl

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mary’s Neck Pleasant as Ocean Breeze in August

Mary’s Neck is a breezy, lighthearted account of a midwestern family’s summer at a New England seashore resort patronized by “the right sort of people” at the height of the Jazz Age.

Mr. Massey is a jovial businessman who wants to be friends with everyone. Mrs. Massey longs be a leading family in Mary’s Neck. Enid and Clarissa are primarily interested in securing the society of boys with sports cards, hefty allowances, and good prospects.

The Masseys’ wear their aspirations like targets painted on their shirts. People can’t help taking shots at them.

The Masseys are regularly cheated by the shrewd Yankees they think so provincial. They fare no better at the hands of those they consider socially prominent.

Booth Tarkington plays this story strictly for laughs, and he provides plenty of them.

The adolescents are adolescent, which is always funny to all but the adolescents. Mrs. Massey is too dim to be funny, but Mr. Massey is sharp enough to learn to pass the losing ticket on to someone else. Tarkington keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek throughout the book.

Mary’s Neck is a pleasant diversion for those days when all you want is a laugh at someone else’s expense.

Mary’s Neck
Booth Tarkington
Doubleday, Doran, 1932
318 pages
©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Old Wine and New Is Pleasure for Mature Palates

Tyne Cot World War I Cemetery
Tyne Cot Cemetery

Warwick Deeping’s Old Wine and New is an unexpected and rather extraordinary tale about the making of a novelist in the years between the First and Second World Wars.

Timid, gentle to a fault, scarcely able to make himself a cuppa, Spenser Scarsdale is as unlikely a hero as a protagonist can be. He blunders along through life, finding almost by accident something he’s sufficiently interested in to put in the effort to make a success of it.

Scarscale serves as a medic in France, caring for victims of the trenches. As the war winds down, one dying man gives Scarsdale an envelope to deliver to his daughter. Scarsdale falls for the girl. He leads her to believe, as he does, that he’s a reasonably well-off literary gentleman.

Scarsdale is unaware that, at 45, he’s considered a washed-up editorial hack. In the post-war slump, Scarsdale loses his job, his savings, and the girl, who never was his anyway.

Scarsdale ends up renting a room from a woman who does domestic work for wealthy Londoners.

Eleanor takes Scarsdale in hand, tactfully helping him to see that he needs to write about real life. With her encouragement, advice, and occasional behind-the-scenes manipulation, Scarsdale writes a successful first novel and follows it up with a second.

Unlike the typical novelist-protagonist, Scarsdale has no passion to write. He writes because it’s the only thing he has the least bit of ability to do, and he must eat.

Deeping’s realistic characters and believable plot will delight readers. Perhaps they may even inspire a few who are blundering into middle age still wondering what they want to do when they grow up.

Old Wine and New
Warwick Deeping
Alfred A. Knopf, 1932
387 pages
1932 Bestseller #6

Photo credit: Tyne Cot WW1 Cemetery uploaded by ssaanen

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Selfishness Bred by The Sheltered Life

In The Sheltered Life, Ellen Glasgow tells a story about a girl who grows up in the early 1900s “without coming in touch with the world.”

When Jenny Blair Archbald scrapes her knees roller skating, Eva Birdsong’s laundress, Memoria, patches her up. George Birdsong, Eva’s handsome husband, swears he won’t tell Jenny’s mother she was in the colored section of town if she won’t say he was at Memoria’s house.

As she grows into her teens, Jenny has no interest in boys her own age. She adores Eva Birdsong while fantasizing about Eva’s husband.

Victorian style American home
What lies behind Victorian facade?

Eva knows all about George’s weakness for women, but insists he loves her. He does care enough to try to protect her from being confronted by evidence of her affairs.

Weakened by the emotional stress of keeping up appearances, Eva is despondent after “female surgery.” George takes her away to recuperate.

Jenny is young and pretty, but she’s not innocent, only naive. Her sheltered life has kept her from knowing the destructiveness of selfishness.

When the Birdsongs return, Jenny throws herself in George’s way. The results are disastrous.

In the final chapter, Jenny sees her motives stripped bare, while her family clings to the deception that she’s young and innocent.

The Sheltered Life
Ellen Glasgow
Doubleday, Doran, 1932
395 pages
1932 Bestseller #5
My Grade: B+

Photo credit: “Victorian home”  uploaded by andrewatla

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Magnolia Street Throbs with Emotion

1914-1918 engraged on a war cenotaph

Between 1910 and 1930 in England’s North County city of Doomington, Jews live on the odd-numbered side of Magnolia Street and gentiles live on the even-numbered side. Those 24 households hold a microcosm of human nature complicated by clashing cultures.

For the most part, Jews and gentiles don’t even recognize each others’ existence. Few make an attempt to cross the street; even fewer succeed. The threat of war hangs over both sides of the street like August humidity, invisible yet palpable.

With his eye for detail and ear for speech, author Louis Golding makes Magnolia Street pulsate with life, sob with loss, and keen the dead who died for nothing at all.

Magnolia Street has no plot to speak of. The book is a collection of related episodes hung together by a few names and anecdotes. You can lay the book down and pick up again days later without having lost the thread of the plot because Golding is constantly reminding readers who so-and-so is.

Perhaps because of those deficiencies, the novel feels like the visit of a slightly older childhood friend who helps you understand the half-remembered events and conversations that shaped your life. It’s no great novel, but it’s an intense emotional experience.

Magnolia Street
Louis Golding
Five Leaves Publications, 2006
531 pages
1932 bestseller #4

Photo credit:  “First World War” An engraving on a war cenotaph uploaded by mistereels

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Sons Eyes Chinese Modernization and Disappointments

A view of downtown Guangzhou, China
Modern Guangzhou is far from The Good Earth

Sons ends the story of Wang Lung begun in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and traces the stories of his three sons who despise the land their father worked all his life to acquire.

The eldest son, a fat, womanizing lout, rents out land to tenant farmers, from which he gets the nickname Wang the Landlord.

The second son, Wang the Merchant, makes money in financial transactions that are not always entirely respectable.

The third son, Wang the Tiger, is a soldier. By courage, cunning and luck, he builds a hundred rag-tag illiterates into a mercenary army.

Wang the Tiger keeps returning to the family to get money to support his army. He adopts a son of each of his brothers, but both disappoint in different ways.

Finally at his request, the brothers find two wives for Wang the Tiger, one of whom gives him a son. He trains the son to become a military man. The son, however, chooses to be a farmer like his grandfather, repeating the theme of sons rejecting their fathers’ values.

Focused on life’s disappointments, Sons is a novel most readers would prefer to forget. Today it seems more highly valued as a guide to understanding the forces driving Chinese modernization than as a piece of literature.

Pearl S. Buck
The John Day Company, 1932
467 pages
1932 bestseller #3

Photo Credit: “Guangzhou across the Pearl”   by Integam

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni