Mrs Parkington by Louis Bromfield

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!

55 comments

  1. I have seen the movie many times but, sorry to say, have not read the book. I was interested in how you would find it, Rachel, and so positive was your review that I will be on the lookout for Mrs. Parkington. I am wondering how true the movie is to the book, skeptical, of course, since the two usually don’t quite gel. You might want to watch it sometime just for the fun of it.

    Thanks for another great review.

    1. Hi Penny! I’ve read a description of the film and it seems that some liberties have been taken…but I am keen to watch it nonetheless. I hope the library has it! The book is truly excellent and I hope you will be able to track it down soon, I am certain you would enjoy it.🙂

      1. I’m sure the book is far superior to the movie, Rachel, much like Mrs. Miniver, but, they are fun to watch when you have some time. I just love to see what you find in the book bins – and then read about what you have read. I will be on the lookout for Mrs. Parkington. Enjoy the day. Spring in New York can be beautiful.

  2. What a bad influence you are, Rachel. My fingers twitched straight to Amazon and I ‘ve just bought it for 1p.

      1. Mrs P has just arrived, Rachel … a nice old orange Penguin, so I’m very pleased with my 1p-worth!

      2. I’m really enjoying it, Rachel and watched the film the other night, too … not at all an Illyrian Spring! (Will I ever live that down!)
        Definitely the Ambersons with a sprinkling of Edith Wharton.

  3. I adore finding obscure books and this one sounds just my thing. 🙂 Maybe I’ll even rent the film. Wasn’t Greer Garson also Mrs. Miniver? I have to say that film is terrible compared to the book. Hopefully this one fairs a bit better.

    1. It is fantastic Heather! I promise you’d enjoy it! Yes she was – I have heard the film doesn’t follow the plot of the book exactly but it sounds like a good piece of 1940’s melodrama anyway!

  4. I must borrow this from you. I had heard of Brom field but don’t believe I’ve read any of his work. This sounds soooooo good.

  5. It seems that you found Louis Bromfield wrote convincingly about women – which in itself is quite unusual.
    You must be so thrilled to find a new author and know you have many more by him to enjoy.
    If only there were more Susie Parkingtons around!

    1. Yes, actually – it was easy to forget that the book was written by a man. I didn’t really think about that!

      Yes I am – there are so many to search through and read!

      I agree – she is quite a woman! I hope I am as wise as her when I am in my eighties!

  6. Thank you for sharing, another addition to my TBR list – which is static at the moment as I am on a real reading roll, after a couple of weeks of stagnation due to wading through a bookclub book which didn’t suit. I wish I could abandon them but unless it’s really bad I feel duty bound…

    1. I’m glad it’s made it to the TBR list, Sarah! Abandoning books is always guilt inducing…I rarely do it because I always feel terrible so you’re not alone!

  7. Another wonderful review, Rachel – this sounds like a great book. I have heart of Louis Bromfield – I feel like his is one of the names I see a lot in secondhand bookshops, but I didn’t recognise any the titles mentioned on his Wikipedia page… maybe he wrote an orange Penguin I see around a lot.

    Will definitely be on the lookout for this one, now.

    1. Thanks Simon! I know this would really be your cup of tea so you must try and find it! I think Mrs Parkington was actually published as an orange penguin so perhaps you’ve seen it?

  8. This book sounds wonderful! It’s perfect for Persephone and Bromfield’s other books too. I’ve never really paid much attention to the $1 carts outside The Strand but I’ll check them out from now on!

    I was reading a magazine article today about Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart which mentioned how fond Bogart was of Louis Bromfeld, the noted author and Bogart and Bacall were married at his home. And then I stopped at your blog to read your review of this book and its by Louis Bromfield. Before today I didn’t know his name! It’s funny how things happen.

    1. It really is, Amy! I can’t wait to read more widely across Bromfield’s oeuvre – Early Autumn, which won the Pulitzer, sounds especially wonderful and very Wharton-esque. I’ll be haunting the book carts outside The Strand for more Bromfield from now on!

      I love it when that happens! Yes, the Bromfields were very high society apparently and had a lot of famous friends – perhaps I need to read a biography of him too, his life sounds fascinating from his wikipedia article!

  9. You do know how to “sell” a book Rachel! Anything compared to Greenbanks, which I loved (and I very much liked the Magnificant Ambersons as well) is one I need to search out. I’d not heard of Louis Bromfield before (but I bet my mom has seen the movie!)–it sounds like he is an author to look for. I’m off to see if my library has this.🙂

    1. Haha! Thanks Danielle! I’m certain you would love him – I hope the library has something by Bromfield for you to read – knowing the treasures you’ve found in there so far, I’d be surprised if they didn’t! If they have Early Autumn, his Pulitzer prize winning novel, you should definitely get that. My library doesn’t have it so I want someone else to read it for me!

  10. Sounds interesting – I’ve never heard of either the book or the movie, so will be on the lookout.

  11. Oh, this does sound wonderful and very Persephone-like! It sounds like a perfect fit for you and was meant to be. And the characters!…bet you had quite the movie playing in your head the whole time you were reading, Rachel.

    1. I know! I’m so glad I found it. I was in raptures the whole time! Shame it wasn’t set in England Darlene otherwise this would be perfect for you too!😉

  12. This sounds fantastic. I do like novels that look at the corrupting effects of wealth – so many writers shy away from the subject. A real find.

  13. Oooh this sounds like an absolute gem that you discovered, and perfect New York reading I would imagine too. It is good to buy, and indeed to read, on whim now and again as you can find some choice little forgotten books like this now and again. Thats how I first fell upon Peyton Place.

    1. It really is Simon! I think you’d enjoy it. Forgotten books are wonderful – but it does always make me wonder how many I have left behind on shelves during my shopping expeditions!

  14. Like Greenbanks and Edith Wharton? PLEASE contact Persephone and ask them to publish it! Maybe we all should and then they’d HAVE to! It sounds so interesting that I’d love to get hold of it.

  15. Thanks for the review, Rachel! I have never heard of this book or this author. I read Vanity Fair recently, and the values of the subsequent generations to Susie’s except Janie sound suspiciously like those featured by Thackeray of early 19th century British society. I don’t feel drawn to reading high society novels; I do like reading novels about relationships, families, and the inner lives of people, though. Is it a high society novel or more of the later? If it is the later, then, I’ll have to hunt it down at the library.

    1. It’s definitely more of the latter, Virginia – the high society aspect is all in the background – it’s about the people and their relationships much more than the world they live in. I think you’d enjoy it!

  16. I own several of Bromfield’s books and have yet to read one. My husband’s grandparents were neighbors of the writer. Grandma would tell stories of searching out Grandpa and finding him at Malabar Farm talking about dogs (Bromfield raised Boxers) or other animals with Louis Bromfield.
    My husband and I took his grandma to visit Malabar Farm one day. The tour was very interesting. So many famous people passed through the little town of Mansfield because of Bromfield.

    1. Oh Dawn, you must read them – what a fascinating family connection! I wonder if you have any photographs? I’d love to go to Malabar Farm myself – I have read that the Bromfields were quite the entertainers and their home was always open. It sounds like a wonderful life, and Bromfield sounds like a fascinating and warm person. I long to read more of his books but they are not proving very easy to find!

      1. Their farm is lovely. It’s set in a valley and the views which surround it are beautiful. If I can find our old photos I’ll see if we have any of the farm. One strange little bit of trivia…Mrs. Bromfield’s original carpets are still in her bedroom and stained horrifically by the dogs. They apparently had run of the home and were not housebroken.

  17. You are should truly visit Malabar Farm. Now a working farm and state park, it is one of the best visitor spots in the Midwest. Check out http://www.mansfieldtourism.com for lodging, maps, restaurants and more, or malabarfarm.org for farm event schedules. The restaurant across the street is fantatic with lots of produce and meat from the farm. And be sure to visit Mt. Jeez, across the road from the farm, with a stunning view of 7 Ohio counties!

  18. I visited Malabar Farm last Friday and our (above middle aged male) tour guide recommended Mrs. Parkington, so I figured I’d check out online reviews of the book to decide if I should buy it. Thanks to your review, I’m convinced🙂

    The Big House is wonderful, with everything being exactly the way the Bromfields left it – except apparently one visitor who’d been to the house when the family lived there told our guide that one difference is that it’s “too clean” now. There was clutter everywhere when the family lived there. But anyway, I love that it hasn’t taken on the museum quality that so many historical homes have now. Going around the holidays means that the house was decked out in Christmas decorations, so that was cool too.

    In case anyone is interested in a new copy of one of Bromfield’s books, our guide told us that the Wooster Publishing Company has several of his books in print. I’ve no idea if they ship, but I know there were copies available on the farm.

  19. I was in Manhattan a few weeks ago and remembered your review of Mrs. Parkington and Strand Books. I left with a bag stuffed with books and so did my friend. I can’t thank you enough for mentioning this institution for book lovers in your review!

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