Margaret Ayer Barnes, who published the haunting Years of Grace to popular and critical acclaim in 1930, pleased her public again in 1934 with Within This Present.
Both novels follow a character from the cusp of womanhood through midlife, allowing readers to live through a slice of history from a domestic perspective.
The woman in Within This Present is Sally Sewall, a girl from a wealthy, close-knit Chicago banking family. At 19, she marries Alan MacLeod before he goes off to the Western Front.
Alan sees only five days of fighting. He comes home feeling cheated of the opportunity to do something that matters.
When Sally says she’s pregnant, Alan says perhaps being a father is what matters. Alan goes to work in the Sewall family’s bank.
Ten years later, Alan becomes involved with a woman in their set. He and Sally are living apart in 1929 when the bank fails. The family crisis predictably brings them back together.
Although Within This Present is an entertaining and enlightening novel, Barnes lets Granny Sewall talk from beginning to end about how young people need challenges to show what they’re made of. Sadly, even dear, sweet Granny’s sermons grow dull with repetition.
Within This Present
By Margaret Ayer Barnes
Houghton Mifflin, 1933
1934 bestseller #5
In The Pit: A Story of Chicago, Frank Norris combines a very good story with a mediocre one.
The better story, believe it or not, is about speculating in wheat futures.
Norris shows the challenge of beating the market becomes as addictive as heroin. Once hooked, traders risk their fortunes, their families, their very lives for fractions of a cent per bushel.
The weak, secondary story is a romance. The leading lady of this story marries the leading man of the other.Even she cannot understand her own behavior, which is equally bewildering to readers.
Despite the handicap of the secondary story, The Pit is powerful and very contemporary.
Norris assumes his readers know how commodities trading works. That might have been true in 1903, but I doubt many novel readers today have the necessary background.
However, if you know or are willing to look up how the market works (there’s a good, short explanation in another 1903 bestseller, George Horace Lorimer’s Letters of a Self-Made Merchant to His Son) will find that Norris’s 110-year-old novel gives a remarkably accurate picture of how the global economy of 2013 affects the daily lives of those who haven’t money to play the markets.
Compulsion covers much of the same ground as Crime and Punishment, but with a far more American tone and faster pace.
Novelist Meyer Levin was a young reporter in Chicago in the 1920s when two brilliant college students from wealthy homes kidnapped and killed a younger boy. Thirty years later, Levin set out to explore through fiction the question that was never answered at the time of the murder and the subsequent trial: why did they do it?
Was it a genetic flaw? Or did their environments make them murderers?
Maybe Judd really believe he was a superman, above the law, as he sometimes said.
Or maybe Artie was demon-possessed.
Perhaps the sexual abuse inflicted by his nursemaid unhinged Judd.
Or perhaps, as the reporters said, they were just perverts.
Levin writes with the precision of an accomplished journalist. He puts nothing unnecessary down, omits no needed detail. Even the discussions of philosophy are so deft that Nietzsche becomes a plausible influence on the murderers. And, despite the horrific subject matter, Levin never stoops to any language unsuitable for a family newspaper.
Compulsion grabbed me with its first page and didn’t let go.
See if it won’t do the same for you.
By Meyer Levin
Simon & Schuster, 1956
# 3 on the ’57 bestseller list
My grade: A