Monday, November 26, 2012
Pulitzer Project: In This Our Life
In This Our Life is set in the 1930s in a Virginia city not far from Washington, DC. The Timberlake family had actually come out of the Civil War in pretty good shape but by the 1930s had hit the economic skids. Asa Timberlake's grandfather had owned a tobacco factory that was doing quite well but then was somehow squeezed out by a larger firm; Asa saw the family go from being one of the wealthiest in town to his mother having to take in boarders. Unable to afford college, as a teenager Asa went to work at what had been his family's factory and was still there almost 50 years later. Despite his own penury, he had managed to marry a woman with a rich uncle. It was thanks to the uncle that the family had a decent house, among other things. At the time the novel opens, Asa's three children are adults: his son Andrew is married with children of his own; the two girls, Roy and Stanley, live at home, although Roy is also married. Roy and her husband, Peter, are living with the Timberlakes to save money until Peter's medical practice is more solidly established.
There had apparently always been a strong sibling rivalry between the two girls. Roy is described as being a quiet brunette; Stanley is an extroverted, perky blonde. Stanley is also the spoiled one. The rich uncle dotes on her while basically ignoring her older, quieter sister, Roy. Uncle William showers Stanley with lavish gifts and even treats her to a Grand Tour of Europe after she finishes school. (Uncle William has a thing for blondes; it's mentioned in passing several times that he kept a blonde mistress in New York.) Despite being everyone's pet, Stanley is never satisfied. Anything Roy has, Stanley wants. When they were children, Stanley would snatch Roy's toys away. Now that they're adults, you guessed it -- she wants the husband. Stanley had been in Europe when Roy married Peter, but once she's back under the same roof as her sister, it doesn't take long for old patterns to resurface. The soap opera begins. Before it ends, we're treated to a jilting, an adulterous relationship, a suicide, a terminal cancer case, a fatal hit-and-run, a wrongfully accused black chauffeur (played by Ernest Anderson in the movie), and a second jilting. It must have been a blast for the actors involved in the film -- lots and lots of opportunity for scenery chewing (and Bette Davis was one of the great scenery chewers; Olivia DeHaviland, Billie Burke, and Hattie McDaniel were no slouches either).
In This Our Life definitely does not qualify as Great Literature. It's soap opera, a fine tradition in American letters but not exactly material that spawns academic dissertations or conferences devoted to the life of the author. It's competently written, albeit a bit odd in places (female characters named Roy and Stanley?), and qualifies easily as "light reading." It's the equivalent of a beach book, although its discussion of race relations and the unfairness of the justice system does introduce a serious note about society as a whole. I've no idea why the Pulitzer judges decided this was the best novel they'd seen that year. Maybe its normalcy appealed to them. The previous winner, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, has to set some sort of record for being one of the most depressing books of all time. Maybe, given the social climate (in 1942 the U.S. was embroiled in a World War) a best seller that was basically fluff held a lot of appeal. The Timberlakes have their problems, no one is really happy, but in general they're surviving.
Would I recommend this book to other readers? Probably not. It's not bad, but it does feel dated. It's better than some of the other Pulitzer winners -- I was, after all, able to finish it -- but not by much.
Next up on the list, Dragon's Teeth by Upton Sinclair.