Antoine’s Serves Mystery with Dinner

Dinner at Antoine’s is an endlessly pleasing novel. Since I found it on my mother’s bookshelf back in the ’60s, I’ve read it many times. I  never remember reading it until I’m almost done, so I enjoy it every time.

Orson Foxworth gives a dinner at Antoine’s restaurant to introduce his niece Ruth Avery to his New Orleans friends, including Amélie Lalande, the woman he plans to marry, and her family.

Ruth is immediately drawn to Amelie’s married daughter, Odile, but repelled by the sexually charged relationship between her husband and her sister—as well as by Amélie’s refusal to notice anything wrong.

When Odile is found shot to death the day after her doctor diagnoses her trembling as the first sign of an incurable condition that will paralyze her , there’s no shortage of suspects. Everyone from Odile’s mother to Foxworth appears to have a motive for murder—if it was murder and not suicide.

To the murder mystery Frances Parkinson Keyes adds two love stories, a conspiracy to overthrow a Latin American government, and generous dollops of New Orleans insider tittle-tattle, producing as pleasant an evening’s reading as you could hope to find.

Dinner at Antoine’s
By Frances Parkinson Keyes
Julian Messner 1948
366 pages
Bestseller # 3 for 1948, # 6 for 1949
My grade: B
©2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Few 1949 top novels worth rereading

1949 was not a particularly good year for novels.

The best of the lot is a holdover from the 1948 bestseller list, Dinner at Antoine’s by Frances Parkinson Keyes.

The book, like all Keyes’ work, has a clever but plausible plot developed through memorable characters. And she writes well enough that her novels can be reread with pleasure.

Point of No Return by John P. Marquand is a better novel than Dinner at Antoine’s, but the elements that make it better from a literary standpoint make it less entertaining.

Marquand’s lead character, Charles Gray, is a solid, respectable, reliable banker, as dull as his name. Marquand tells how Charles almost stepped out of character once in his life.

That almost does Marquand in. A few months later, all I remembered was that the writing was wonderful. I couldn’t remember the character or plot at all.

The other books from the 1949 bestseller list are not worth picking up. Fortunately, there is some great reading on the 1939 bestseller list. I’ll begin looking at those novels this coming week.


The Father of the Bride Is a Dull Old Duffer

By today’s standards, Edward Streeter’s The Father of the Bride is a quaint novel rather than a funny one.

The story is simple and predictable.  When Stanley Banks’  first born daughter decides to marry Buckley Dunstan, Mr. Banks’ comfortable, predictable life is turned on its head. Everything is more trouble and more expense than he could have imagined.

Eventually, the couple weds, the reception ends, and the Mr. Banks is left to pay the bills.

Ho hum.

In 1949, Streeter’s book probably seemed very trendy. The wedding industry was in its infancy. People were just catching on to the idea of middle class folks sinking a fortune into a wedding bash. Live-in arrangements had not yet become routine.

But the days when a champagne reception could be hosted for $3.72 per person are long gone.

So is this novel’s appeal.

None of the characters emerges as a real person. Gluyas Williams drawings underscore the flatness of the characters.  They are just props to hang a thesis on.

The only thing that still rings true is that nobody cares about a wedding except the principals.

When Streeter requests the honor of your reading his novel, send your regrets.

Father of the Bride
By Edward Streeter
Illustrated by Gluyas Williams
Simon and Schuster 1948
244 pages
Bestseller # 10 for 1949
My grade: C-
2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Pride’s Castle Is Overvalued Property

Pride’s Castle is the tale of a poor boy determined to be rich and the women who love him.

Pride Dawson and his trusty sidekick, Tim McCarthy, land in New York after the Civil War. Two women fall madly in love with Pride immediately. One is honest but poor Sharon O’Neil. The other is the rich but unscrupulous Esther Stillworth.

Before long, Pride is on his way to being a robber baron on a par with the Goulds and Vanderbuilts.

He marries Esther for her money, but continues seeing Sharon, who eventually becomes his mistress. Both women exist at the back of his life.

Pride’s real passion is making money. He spends it ostentatiously, among other things modeling the décor of his pseudo-medieval castle on the Hudson on that of an upscale New Orleans brothel.

The ups and downs of the American economy and labor movement of the late nineteenth century form the backdrop of the story. Tim and Pride split over Pride’s treatment of workers, and even Esther argues for workers’ legitimate concerns.

Plot is everything in this novel.  Frank Yerby ties up all the lose ends but never shows what makes Sharon tick — and she’s what makes the novel interesting.

Pride’s Castle
By Frank Yerby
Dial Press, 1949
382 pages
1949 bestseller #9
My Grade: C
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The edge is off Cutlass Empire

During the 1600s, England, France, and Spain struggled for world domination. Intrigues in the European courts had effects around the globe. F. Van Wyck Mason takes readers back to that time with Cutlass Empire, a based on the true story of a privateer who became governor of Jamaica.

The novel is a swashbuckler whose swash has long since buckled.

Washed up — literally — on a Caribbean island, Harry watches helplessly as Spaniards torture and murder. Harry determines to get revenge and make his fortune doing it.

He takes commissions from the British or French to attack Spanish shipping. But land fighting, not sea battles, are Harry’s forte.

Seeing that England needs only control a few critical islands to keep Spain from exploiting all her New World possessions, Harry goes for the kill.

In 1670, he marches his ruffians across the Isthmus of Panama and captures Panama City — months after England and Spain have penned a peace treaty.

Harry’s brilliant campaign was a criminal act.

Mason has written an historical novel with emphasis on history. The plot feels threadbare. The main characters are shallow creatures from romance novels.

If Mason had attempted a narrower story, he might have achieved a far better novel.

Cutlass Empire
F. Van Wyck Mason
Doubleday, 1949
396 pages
1949 Bestseller # 8
My Grade: C-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Forgotten History Kept Forgettable inHigh Towers

High Towers is a bodice-ripping historical novel about a lovely lass who becomes one of the early settlers of New Orleans.

Felicite’s father dies on the voyage to Montreal in 1697. Her mother returns to France, leaving the child to be brought up in the new world.

Felicite is adopted by Montreal’s leader, Charles le Moyne.  Le Moyne arranges a marriage for Felicite with a rich Frenchman and ships her to New Orleans to marry him.

Felicite is already in love with a poor carpenter who has preceded her to New Orleans, but she’s willing to sacrifice herself for the good of the French colonies. Her new husband turns out to be too much of a brute even for Felicite’s patriotism.

Thomas B. Costain takes his plot and characters straight from the shelf with nary a variation on the standard pot-boiler romance.

The only novelty here is the historical setting. The le Moynes were a real family of 10 French-Canadian brothers who played a major role in keeping America from falling under Spanish domination.

Costain tries to weave all 10 brothers into this novel. The result is a forgettable novel about an almost forgotten period in American history.

High Towers
By Thomas B. Costain
Doubleday, 1949
403 pages
1949 Bestseller #7
My Grade: C+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Point of No Return Makes Gray Vivid

Investment banker Charles Gray is not a man to take chances. He believes in preserving assets— emotional assets as well as financial ones.

In The Point of No Return, John P. Marquand explores the one time in his life when Charles almost stepped out of character.

When the book opens, Charles is waiting to hear whether he or Roger Blakesley will be tapped for the bank’s vacant vice presidency.

When the bank sends him to his hometown to check on collateral offered by a loan applicant, Charles reviews the youthful experiences that shaped him. His fear of taking risks is  at least partially due to his father’s stock speculation and suicide in 1929.

When he gets to Clyde, Charles sees that his childhood best friend has climbed to the top of the local social and political power structure.

While Clyde views Charles as a successful New York banker, Charles realizes he is small potatoes in the Manhattan financial scene. He’s been careful and obsequious, but that’s not enough to guarantee success in a corporation.

Marquand is so skilled a writer that he makes an entertaining novel out of experiences that didn’t excite even their participants.

You won’t remember Point of No Return long, but you won’t be bored while you’re reading it.

The Point of No Return
By John P. Marquand
Little, Brown 1949
559 pages
1949 Bestseller # 5
My Grade: B
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Have Dinner at Antoine’s Again

The novel in sixth position on the 1949 bestseller list was Dinner at Antoine’s by Frances Parkinson Keyes, which appeared in third place in 1948.

I reviewed the book last year on this blog.

Though far from a great novel, the book is one that I’ve read several times and always found enjoyable. I think you’ll find it pleasantly diverting, too.

A Rage to Live Is Rotten to Read

A Rage to Live is a senior moment in novel form. About 250 pages into the novel, John O’Hara reaches the “What was I going to do?” point. He can’t remember, but he goes on writing for another 350 pages anyway.

In 1917, a Fourth of July fundraiser for the Red Cross is being held at the farm of Gladys and Sidney Tate. The governor has pulled strings to get Sidney a Navy commission.

As they go to bed that night, Sidney asks his wife, “When I’m gone will you still be wondering how much I know, how much I’ve guessed, Grace?”

Predictably, in the second chapter John O’Hara jumps back 30 years to begin the story of what Sidney knows about Grace and how he came to know it. Readers learn even more about Sidney’s sexy wife than even he knows.

None of it is pretty.

Smack in the middle of the novel, Sidney drops dead.

The novel dies with him.

Instead of engendering sympathy for Grace, the nasty things that happen to her only make her less appealing to readers. She is, to put it bluntly, a rich bitch.

And, to put it bluntly, A Rage to Live is an awful book.

A Rage to Live
By John O’Hara
Random House, 1949
590 pages
1949 Bestseller # 4
My Grade: D+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mary Is No Entertainer

Sholem Asch’s novel Mary has to follow the familiar Biblical narrative about the mother of Jesus, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for surprises. Before you open the cover, you know what’s going to happen.

The most intriguing part of the plot is in how the young Jesus grows into a knowledge of his destiny. The explanations Asch has Mary and Joseph give to Jesus’ questions about the scriptures are thoughtful and thought-provoking.

As in most religious novels, the interest is in the detail rather than the main story. Asch pads his tale with tidbits about geography, climate, history, and contemporary customs. While I’m glad to know Jews were required to feed their animals before they ate, I don’t find that fact particularly exciting.

None of Asch’s characters seems like a real person—not even the people who were real people.

Asch invents Nazarenes  in an attempt to bring in some local color. But instead of creating a sense of reality, the invented characters read like a list of dramatis persona.

Asch has characters speak long passages from the Torah and other religious materials, which only makes them sound more fake.

Mary is somewhat interesting, but never entertaining.

By Sholem Asch
Trans. by Leo Steinberg
G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1949
436 pages
1949 bestseller #3
My grade: C-
©2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni