Monday, December 27, 2010

Birth Year Reading Challenge: Pursuit of the Prodigal


If you want a window into East Coast American wealth in the 1950's, this is your book. Auchincloss was a cousin by marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on the Bouvier side, and the world of high society was his milieu. As an example: Auchincloss attended but didn't graduate from Yale, and he still managed to get into (and graduate from) law school at the University of Virginia. Without any basis in fact, I suspect that path wouldn't work out for most people, unless you were someone or knew someone. His Yale News obituary notes that Auchincloss left Yale before his senior year in order to attend law school, so I guess actually graduating from Yale was considered merely a pesky detail.

I have enough New Criticism in my background to realize that authors aren't necessarily bound to their biographies, but I have to say Auchincloss's background adds some credibility to what he's writing about in this novel. It also meshes nicely with my idea of what the 1960's were rebelling against. There's plenty of that here, too.

The main character, Reese Parmelee, comes from a wealthy background of family compounds, family money, and family businesses. Despite what some would consider these extremely attractive advantages, Reese yearns for a more direct life, where he can make his way in the world, earning a living through his own intelligence, without the buffer of the family name and money.

Of course, when he removes the golden handcuffs and strikes out on his own, he ends up with a semi-unsavory law partner and a social nobody of a girlfriend who longs for the security of inclusion in the Parmelee family and Parmelee Cove. Oh, the trials and tribulations of the man of principle!

Meanwhile, Reese's ex-wife manages not only to stay in the family compound, but to maneuver herself into the main house with her new husband, putting Reese in the position of being a guest in his own family home. It's a delightful window into the social/political acumen of women who were relegated to homemaking when their talents and ambitions were more suited to the boardroom.

Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely. It is a tale of social mores, where subtle nuance carries a lot of weight and careers are made or broken over hors d'oeuvres. Auchincloss was much influenced by Edith Wharton (as noted in his New York Times obituary) and his writing has a similar flavor. The descriptions are spare, the dialog leaves a lot unsaid, and the details matter. To some extent this is a vanished world; at the same time, it is with us as much as ever.

Excerpt:

And then, suddenly, one survived. Suddenly one was back in the gatehouse at Parmelee Cove with a wife whose radiant smile at cocktail parties seemed to imply that one had won the war singlehanded, a job in Clark, Day & Parmelee, a son whom one barely knew and a daily commute. It took a couple of years before the shock of the war was entirely over, but then the realization began to bite more and more deeply into Reese that change was a thing of the past, that he had been somehow committed to an irrevocable way of life without a chance to make up his own mind. Life so far had been a series of not necessarily related compartments; one could stay in any one of them for the allotted period without bothering to articulate a protest, because one knew that one was bound eventually to move on to the next. . . . [W]hat he had avoided facing was just what had now happened, that he was committed, irretrievably committed, with no end, no relief in sight.

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