I don’t normally buy books on a whim, or randomly. I enjoy browsing bookshops, but I’m always looking for specific authors or titles I have already heard of. It’s rare that I will be enticed to pick up a book I haven’t heard of, by someone I haven’t heard of. However, due to the success I had with my latest read, which I only picked up because the spine was so rubbed I couldn’t see the title without opening it, I think I will be buying books on a whim more regularly. I read the first page of Mrs Parkington by Louis Bromfield, standing on the pavement outside the Strand bookstore, and was so enchanted that I went inside, paid my $1, and went home with a book that promised adventures on previously uncharted waters in my bag. I’m so glad I did! Louis Bromfield was a prolific mid century American writer and also a pioneering farmer – an interesting combination! He won the Pulitzer prize and his books were all bestsellers, many of them being made into Hollywood films, including Mrs Parkington. I had never heard of him before picking up Mrs Parkington, but I am delighted that I have now discovered him and that there are so many more of his novels for me to enjoy.
Susie Parkington, when the novel opens, is an elderly woman. The widow of one of America’s richest men, she lives in splendour in a New York townhouse, and is the head of a large and largely disappointing family. Her two sons, who she adored, died in their early twenties, and as such, all she is left with is her now sixty something, dour, miserable, alcoholic daughter, ‘The Duchess’, whose marriages all ended in failure and who has never developed the ability to take any joy out of life. There are also Helen and Madeleine, her older son’s daughters, who were babies when he died. Helen is now a miserable, middle aged socialite trapped in a sham marriage to a loud, boorish stockbroker, Amory, whose questionable business practices have landed him in serious financial trouble. Madeleine is an attractive, flighty forty something who changes her husbands like most women do clothes and is always off having some adventure on her inherited wealth. The only hope for the future of the family rests on Susie’s great grandchild, Janie, Helen and Amory’s daughter. Nineteen, pretty, intelligent, compassionate and filled to the brim with life, Janie is Susie reincarnated. Susie is determined to make sure that Janie’s life is not tarnished, as she believes her own children’s were, by the colossal amount of money the family has. The huge fortune has bred nothing but indolence, dissipation, dissatisfaction and unhappiness, and now, Susie, as an old woman, with many experiences, loves, tragedies and adventures behind her, is able to look back over her life and see how money gradually poisoned the lives of those around her.
There are many flashbacks – from Susie’s insignificant beginnings as a maid in her parent’s boarding house in a Nevada pioneer town to her marriage to the rich, handsome Gus Parkington, a pioneer boy himself, whose shares in railroads and mines built him the fortune he and Susie would use to make their way in the world, eventually reaching the pinnacle of New York society and becoming intimate friends of none other than the Prince of Wales. There are tales of wonderful female friendships, of terrible losses, of infidelities and luxuries beyond imagination. As sweeping as the canvas is, it is also an intimate story of a woman’s emotional life, of the experiences that make and mould a character, of the great relationships and loves that enrich our lives, and of the memories and pleasures that make life the wonderful, ever surprising journey it is. Through it all shines Susie’s gentle, kind, determined personality, that has seen her through the loss of everyone she holds dear, and continues to keep her strong as she is battered by the storms of the terrible mistakes her grandchildren and children make. One by one they come to her, seeking solace, rescue, money, advice…and Susie is left wondering whether the fortune, the hard work, was all worth it, when all it produced was falseness, vanity, unhappiness and incompetence. As the lives of her family members and their circle unravel around her, Susie stands firm, the last bastion of a generation whose integrity and determination allowed their descendants to become decadent, irresponsible, lazy and arrogant, dependent on inherited wealth and seeking worth in social status rather than good character. Looming large above it all is the figure of Gus Parkington, Susie’s beloved, reckless, ambitious and brave husband, whose values, built on the pioneer spirit, have been so twisted by his descendants.
This is an absolutely incredible, absorbing, and fascinating book, that, while set in the 40’s, feels wonderfully current, in all its descriptions of financial dodgy dealings and hedge fund fraud. The family dynamics detailed, the blend of different personalities, many of them infuriating, and the fantastic character of Susie Parkington, all come together to produce a story not of one family, but of a whole society, collapsing in on itself, as those who created it die off and leave offspring who are incapable of carrying the weight of its responsibilities on their shoulders. It’s a more current The Magnificent Ambersons, I suppose, but told from a woman’s perspective. I loved it and couldn’t put it down. It also reminded me, very strongly, of Greenbanks, by Dorothy Whipple. While it is set in America, and amongst the highest echelons of society, the figure of the matriarch, the spider’s web of complicated family relationships and the trials of outliving those you love and having to watch the world you build and believed in tumble around you, are all there, all fascinating, and all intricately, emotively, wonderfully written, just like a good, meaty Whipple novel. This is exactly the sort of book Persephone should republish, and I’d love to see it brought back into print. It is just terrific. I encourage you all to hunt it down and read it!