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

The Brimming Cup is a heady treat

In 1909, a couple on the Rocca di Papa pledged their love. Eleven years later, as the woman sends her youngest child off to school, Marise Crittenden thinks, “This is the beginning of the end.”

Marise is a talented pianist living in a tiny New England town. When  Mr. Wells, a retired office manager moves in next door, accompanied by the son of his late employer, Marise is drawn to both men for different reasons. Neale Crittenden is away on business when the newcomers arrive, so it falls to Marise to introduce them to the Ashley community.

With this honest, self-effacing ways, Mr. Wells becomes Marise’s  friend and her preteen son’s confidant. With his charm and sophistication, handsome young Vincent Marsh becomes her tempter.

Vincent says children are better raised by strangers, that Marise has a duty to cultivate her musical talent, that her marriage is valueless because its passion has worn off.

A chance comment leads Marise to fear Neale might be underhanded. If that is true, she might as well leave with Vincent.

The Brimming Cup is a novel to savor. Dorothy Canfield’s characters are distinctive individuals portrayed with watercolor subtlety. She makes her intricate plot look straightforward.

The Brimming Cup
By Dorothy Canfield [Fisher]
Harcourt, Brace, 1921
409 pages
1921 bestseller # 2
Project Gutenberg Ebook-No: 14957
My Grade: A-
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Winter of Our Discontent is a joy

As The Winter of Our Discontent opens, Ethan Allen Hawley is clerking for an Italian immigrant who bought Hawley’s grocery after Ethan’s father went broke and lost it. Ethan has a wife and two kids to support; some extra cash wouldn’t come amiss.

Sweet and funny, educated and articulate, Ethan escapes from the routine of his life in words. Ethan orates to the canned goods, engages in one-sided conversations with the banker’s red setter, and declaims to his children on patriotic ideals.

Joey Morphy inadvertently shows Ethan how to rob the bank next door to the grocery, and Ethan’s fertile imagination takes over from there.

Others in New Baytown are also looking for an easy buck. Some of the town leaders are trying to get hold of the only local site suitable for an airport. A grocery supplier offers Ethan kickbacks to secure orders. Ethan’s son is hoping to win an essay contest.

The Winter of Our Discontent holds pleasing and plausible surprises on every page. John Steinbeck merges a clever plot with characters that are more believable than most people I know. Beneath the novel’s superficial froth lie truths as durable as the sea that licks the New England coast.

The Winter of Our Discontent
By John Steinbeck
Viking, 1961
309 pages
1961 bestseller # 10
My Grade: A

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Portygee Proves Any Time’s a Good Time to Grow Up

In outline, The Portygee sounds like a standard romance, but Joseph C. Lincoln turns it into a sweet, funny story about a boy and his grandfather growing up together.

When his opera-star father dies, Alberto Miguel Carlos Speranza, 17,  is sent to live with his grandparents in Cape Cod.  Al knows nothing of his parents’ history and was not even aware his  grandparents were living.

Al learns Lote Snow had disowned his daughter for eloping with a  “Portygee” (Lote’s term for foreigner). Lote’s prejudice against foreigners extends to his grandson.

Al’s boarding school manners  make him a hit with the rich summer people, but don’t endear him to the other employees of his grandfather’s lumber company.

Al’s artistic temperament is at odds with his grandfather’s practicality, but his grandmother intercedes for him. Pretty, level-headed Helen Kendall’s friendship helps, too. Eventually, Lote realizes if he’s not careful he will lose his grandson as he lost his daughter .

In the pen of a less astute writer, these characters would have been stereotypes. Lincoln breathes life and quirkiness into his cast that elevate the novel from a string of cliches to reminder that people can grow up at any age.

Note: Although I found a hard copy of the book (hence the blurry photo), it is easier to find online.

The Portygee
by Joseph C. Lincoln
D. Appleton, 1920
361 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #3263
1920 bestseller #7
My grade B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg

By Love Possessed: Too many pages, too many semicolons

By Love Possessed covers 49 hours in the life of Arthur Winner, a respected lawyer in a small, rural New England town in the early 1940s.

James Gould Cozzens puts readers inside Arthur’s head. They see the story unfold through his eyes. They also hear what Arthur thinks and feels about what’s happening.

Since there’s no narrator to provide context, readers have to figure out who is who  and what’s going on. That’s not easy.

At times, By Love Possessed reads more like By Semicolons Obsessed. This is dense prose, folks.

If you dig long enough, the plot that emerges is this: Ralph, the brother of one of the secretaries in Arthur’s office, is accused of rape. Arthur jumps in with all lawyerly speed. While working on Ralph’s problem, Arthur learns he’s got a few problems of his own. Meanwhile,  unhappy with lawyerly speed, folks take things into their own hands, bringing the plot to a climax while Arthur fritters.

This novel could have been a lot better if it had been 200 pages shorter. Cozzens got so wrapped up in producing a literary work, he forgot about telling a story.

Too bad.

With ruthless editing, this could have been a great novel.

By Love Possessed
By James Gould Cozzens
Harcourt, Brace, 1957
570 pages
#1 bestselling novel for 1957
My grade: C
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni