by Doubleday, Doran & Co. 1928. 12mo. viii+253 pp. $2.50.. Garden City:
IF one wished to be alliterative, one might say that each of Mr. Tarkington’s novels improves in skill but not in scope. Never has he written better than in Claire Ambler, never written with such precision without being a precisian, never with a finer ease and economy produced so exactly the effect he wished to produce. The book is, however, a single portrait, rather than a picture of Society, and several of the characters seem a little made-up instead of being created. But Claire herself is superbly drawn.
People are saying that the book is the portrait of a flapper. And of course it is, but only in the sense that the type has always existed, and in men as well as women. Claire has the clothes, manners, and methods of a certain kind of girl of to-day, but at bottom she is sister to all the coquettes of all the ages. And that means as Mr. Tarkington is almost too careful to explain — that she is gifted or afflicted with an instinctive sense of drama or histrionism, like Richard II and Mr. Micawber and Cleopatra and Eustacia Vye and — well, almost any human being one may choose to name. Claire happens to be feminine and pretty and kind-hearted, and her creator happens to have been more interested in comedy than tragedy; but the trait which she exhibits and he studies is so nearly universal that everyone understands it and secretly condones it. Claire has no malice, never wishes to be cruel: she is as lovable as a kitten. But, like a kitten, she simply cannot help acting. Even when she wishes most to be sincere, her instinct for the occasion steps in front of her desire and she presents a charming or arresting posture or pantomime quite as surprising to herself as disturbing to her companion. Anyone who has never done something of the same sort must be either a very single-minded or a very simple person.
In Part I, Claire is presented, at the age of eighteen, in a scene pleasantly recalling many another in Seventeen or Gentle Julia. Her young lover here, Nelson Smock, disappears henceforth from the story, but he serves as a kind of human litmus paper to show Claire’s particular quality and, moreover, to bring about in Claire what the author calls the birth of thought. At the close of the incident, she for the first time realizes that her instinctive and unaccommodated egoism leads her to do things that her intelligence disapproves of.
The second and longest section of the novel exhibits the struggle between her two selves. The scene is southern Italy; the test cases for the exhibition of her psychology being a noble young Italian and an invalid Englishman who is slowly dying. The conflict between her sense of drama and her sense of honesty is skillfully illustrated in incident, and she returns to America for the time being enlightened and sobered. Part III contains an acute study of the feelings of a young woman facing spinsterhood and ends with Claire’s marriage. The last words of the book once more point the theme of the whole: ‘She was uplifted with the happiness of a great reassurance; once more she knew that she had forgotten herself and remembered him.'
The novel is a delightful comedy. Claire might be described as a fancy skater on thin ice. We are very glad that she never goes through.
R. M. GAY