Friday, March 19, 2010

Pulitzer Project: Years of Grace

I had the oddest feeling as I started reading Years of Grace, the novel that won the Pulitzer for a novel in 1931, that I'd accidentally picked up a book by Louisa May Alcott.  The first chapter or two were highly reminiscent of Alcott's Under the Lilacs with a few hints of Little Women tossed in for good measure. The feeling passed, but it's obvious (and probably not surprising) the author was influenced by Alcott's work.  Until recently, it was a rare American girl who was not familiar with the March sisters (the Moss siblings are a little less well-known).

Years of Grace was the first novel written by author Margaret Ayer Barnes, and is one that appears to some extent to be highly autobiographical.  Like Barnes, the heroine, Jane, was born in Chicago in the 1880s and attended an eastern ivy league women's college.  Where their lives diverge is that Barnes completed her college education and had a professional career, whereas Jane leaves college after her sophomore year and ends up married to a banker from Boston and living in the Chicago suburbs.    

The novel follows Jane's life from her early teens, the point at which her older sister is about to make her debut into society, through middle age and into grandmotherhood.  Jane is a good girl, so, with the notable exception of pushing hard to be allowed to go east to college rather than being sent off to a finishing school like several of her friends, she generally does what she's told as well as conforming with conventional societal norms.  She might be tempted to run off with a childhood sweetheart or to have a mid-life fling with a friend's husband, but she's not likely to follow through on either impulse.  She spends every summer quietly resenting being stuck at the beach house with her aging proper Bostonian in-laws, but it never occurs to her to complain at all to her husband about being bored and/or miserable. 

I had a mixed reaction to this book.  It is gracefully written, and I loved the descriptions of Chicago changing over time.  The street where Jane grew up goes from being quietly residential with large, gracious houses on big lots to a busy commercial thoroughfare, for example, just as she goes from riding in horse-drawn carriages to driving her own car.  The contrast between Jane's conventional life in the early years of the 20th century and those of her college friends who stay in school is intriguing:  one friend becomes a successful playwright and another goes on to earn a doctorate and eventually serve as a college president.  There's a lot of discussion of changing social mores:  Jane's daughter gets a divorce, and makes it clear to her mother that the times have changed, the idea of a divorce turning a person into a Scarlet Woman is passe, and there's no longer any reason to stay in a boring or loveless marriage.  Years of Grace actually makes a fairly strong case for women being strong and independent rather than assuming marriage and a mythical happy ever after should be their goal.

On the other hand, I do prefer the central characters of the books I read to actually serve as the center of the action, not merely as a powerless observer of what's going on around him or her.  And Jane is very much an observer.  Things happen to her and around her, but she doesn't initiate much (if anything) herself.  She goes with the flow, and, even if it is an interesting flow, it's still a little too passive for my taste. 

Overall, this was one of the better books I've read so far from the Pulitzer winners list.  It does feel a little dated, but it is well-written and readable, which is more than I could say about one or two others that are better remembered and still referred to as classics.  I'm guessing that one reason it won in 1931 is that it reflected the public mood of the time wanting stability and a sense of survivorship:  troubling things happen to Jane and her family -- kids rebel, marriages fall apart, people die -- but in the end it all works out.  Barnes finished the novel before the full impact of the October 1929 stock market crash and the economic depression that followed would have been apparent, so it was probably coincidence that she managed to hit just the right combination of nostalgia and hopefulness to guarantee her first major work of fiction became a best seller.

One minor oddity about this book within the context of the Pulitzer Prize list is its almost complete lack of exotic others.  The prize winning novels in 1929 and 1930 were about locations and persons essentially foreign to the average U.S. reader (the Gullah residents of a South Carolina plantation and Navajos in Arizona, respectively), and in 1932 the prize would go to The Good Earth, which is about Chinese peasants.  In 1931, however, middle class white Americans leading comparatively stable, ordinary lives untouched by melodrama were apparently the protagonists that resonated best with the prize committee and reading public. 

Would I recommend Years of Grace to other readers?  Yes.  If I had to compare Barnes to a modern author, I'd say that if a reader likes works by authors such as Jodi Picoult, he or she would find Barnes to be a decent read.  Compared to Picoult, Barnes is a more innocent writer (she hints at things Picoult would have no qualms about describing directly), but she's equally readable.

Barnes, incidentally, is one of those writers who has fallen so far off the radar that a Google images search yielded only one very small (thumbnail size) photo of a cover for Years of Grace and one poor quality photo of the author herself -- and that was on the Find a Grave website.  She published several other novels as well as short stories in the 1930s, and then apparently stopped writing fiction.  She died in 1967, her remains were cremated, and her ashes were scattered on Mount Desert Island in Maine.

No comments:

Post a Comment

My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.