Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Keepers of the House/Early Autumn

Shirley Ann Grau's book deserves its own entry, but unfortunately I can't seperate this book in my mind from Louis Bromfield's book Early Autumn. These two books are so amazingly similar that it was hard for me, reading them back to back, think of them as seperate works. Written years and years a part by two completely different people, they express the same sentiments. Bromfield and Grau express a furious longing for their female protagonists to divorce themselves from their lives, live peacefully separate everything they have ever known. Olivia and Abigail, live with apathetic husband's entrenched in a family history that they feel ambivalent towards. Abigail takes a more active role in pursuing legacy, but in the end separates herself as well as she can breaking all societal expectations to free herself from these lingering old world pressures. The difference between them is their settings which almost becomes a character in each other their tales, which bridges these works again. Early Autumn is set in waspy Durham, Mass, following the Pentlands family through a very tumultous summer, seeing the death of a son, the elopement of their only daughter, the return of the antagonist to the family, Sabine, the death of the prodigal son, Horace, and the coming apart of all secrets young and old. Much of Bromfield's subject matter doesn't really connect with post-modern readers which may be why this novel hasn't survived the test of time. A lot of his plot devices may have been shocking and scandalous at the time it was written, but now the tension is almost non-existent, and all of the intrigue we might import into this novel are minor issues that the author may not have investigated fully. But not just the plot similarities are what tie these novels, but the way they were told tie them closer, by their opposites for exactly the right reasons.

Bromfield uses flowery language with soaring descriptions and conceits that might be a little over the top for my ears, but it is a simple story. There are twists and intrigue that pours out of his well constructed characters. The characters are real, and they pop out of their dull surroundings. John Pentland is fantastic, Olivia is noble and picturesque, Anson is fantastic if a little flat, Aunt Cassie is a person that you love to hate but again a little flat, and Sabine is wonderful character that I think Bromfield want you to like but the characters don't. Something that really stiff-arms the contemporary reader is Bromfield's insatiable need to narrate this novel. Bromfield wants you to feel a very specific way about these characters and leads you a little maybe way too much to some sort of conclusion about this story. There is a lot of narration, not very much dialogue and little or not action. Lots of bridge-playing and going to bed. Which aren't intrinsically interesting events, lots of talking, but not dialogue, more monologue and narration about conversations. Bromfield talked for his characters, and didn't really let his characters time to breathe. There is too much language in this novel, and talk about how people will talk.

Grau's book is a simple story told in an ugly way. Technically ugly though. Grau's words are harsh on the ears, and it decides when to flow and when to be choppy. Grau tells a no-frills story and does everything that it wants to. Which is what I think is different about Bromfield. Bromfield really wants a specific reaction and suffocates his story by leading you to everything. Grau puts this story in front of you and lets you decide if you like it or not. I will respond and say that I loved a lot of this novel, but I wasn't captured by the ending. There were certain parts that I loved and didn't want to stop, but there were parts that I was definitely lost in and could have left behind. This was not perfect, nor near perfect, but it was a good novel, humble and unassuming. If I didn't know that it won the pulitzer I might feel differently about it, and wouldn't value it in the same light. Southern gothic is a very interesting mode of literature to, loving Flannery O'Connor and James Agee, and this novel nestles up to these authors, but I'm not sure they are of the same elk of writer. I am much more interested in reading more Grau than Bromfield. But I want to explore more Bromfield and see if there might be a better work of his out there that may be a more complete work.