Untitled Book Review

Too many husbands seems to be the theme common to some of our more notable novels of the New Year. They are not all written by women, either.
To duplicate a prize-winning novel is a dubious undertaking. Mrs. Margaret Ayer Barnes avoided the risk when she followed the leisurely, brooding Years of Grace with the flying frivolity of Westward Passage (Houghton Mifflin, $2.50). If the second novel has something of the roseate fluffiness of a strawberry soda, it has also the underlying tang. For it is perspicacious.
A mature woman’s last clutch at romance, at the elation of feeling young and lovely and desirable once more, is not a new theme, but the vivacity of Westward Passage makes it as good as new. This vivacity never flags, from the moment of shock when pretty Mrs. Harry Ottendorf of Lake Shore Drive, embarked on a west-bound Atlantic liner, finds that she is a fellow passenger of that difficult but fascinating creature, her former husband, to the admirably logical dénouement in the Vermont farmhouse.
This novel, like Grace Hegger Lewis’s Half a Loaf, is founded upon the penalties incurred by the woman who marries a born writer and the penalties incurred by the born writer who marries a woman. But in contrast to the harshness and occasional venom of Half a Loaf, the execution of Westward Passage shows a gay detachment. Judiciously — for Nicholas and Olivia are a pair of ’lightweights.’ Olivia (incidentally the more convincing) is the lighter; for Nicholas carries the freightage of a few standards and one definite purpose, as against Olivia’s general intention of leading an agreeable and flattering life.
The style of Westward Passage is simple and alive. I think it is rather regrettable that the author is so addicted to the endless repetition of a favorite characterizing phrase, and that she has disfigured a page with the barbarity of ‘quite some time.’ But there is no question that the incidents she narrates make a smart impact.
Summer’s Night, by Sylvia Thompson (Atlantic Monthly and Little, Brown, $2.50), which also deals with a mismated husband and wife, treats its theme with more of sentiment and less of irony, and arrives at a conclusion that will satisfy the reader or not, according as he is optimist or pessimist, according as he agrees with Charles or with Jasmin in their passionate argument: —
‘People never change.’
‘That is not true. it isn’t true.’
Charles Bitterne does not belong to the genus irritabile: he is a painter, not a writer. He is difficult, not with tension and frenzy, but with absorption and concentration; and most of all with a deep distaste for his wife’s amusements and boon companions. Jasmin loves society and gayety. Charles knows how to be agreeable, but he is not really socially-minded. And he is not at all a boon companion. He cannot live by cocktails and highballs alone, and his preference is for parties at which it is not indiscreet to pass from one room to another without announcing that one is coming. Charles, in short, who was so thrilling a lover, has become an unmalleable husband; Jasmin, who was ‘the glory of life, the splendor of the world,’ has turned into a feverish pleasure hunter. The just grievance is mutual.
I think, however, that what will remain in the memory after the book is read is not the drama of Charles and Jasmin and the ‘other girl’ who loves Charles, but the tragedy of beautiful old Melcombe, home of the Bitternes, and Theresa, Charles’s spirited and startling mother. The memorable scene, to my mind, is the exit of the Bitternes from the home they have had to sell: the dignity, the grief, the finality of the good-bye, and then the melancholy departing cortège of car and cart and van, and the shiny eager heads of the nine cockers seething in the village Ford.
In Mr. and Mrs. Pennington, by Francis Brett Young (Harpers, $3.00), the complications arise less from temperamental incompatibility of young husband and young wife than from a specific failing in one and the consequent pressure brought upon the other. The vivacious Susan is weak as water before the temptation of alluring objects or of pleasure; so Dick Pennington, who as a bachelor was richly content with miles and miles of downs and a not very good motor cycle, finds that life has turned first into a grimly responsible thing and then into shattering melodrama.
The novel is ballasted with the author’s fundamental faith in humanity; Mr. Brett Young habitually writes as one who, having known many men in many conditions, yet tends to think well of mankind. And it is written with his characteristic leisureliness, authority, sense of form, and command of atmosphere. The party at the Grand Midland, the high downs in the mist, and the interior of the lockup are pictured with equal reality; and the tension of the crisis is skillfully dissolved at the end on the rich vibrations of the Ludlow chimes. Mr. and Mrs. Pennington, in short, is a balanced, harmonious, and wise piece of work, and acutely interesting.
The conflict and defeat in The Weather-Tree, by Maristan Chapman (Viking, $2.50), may be summed up in Chad Lane’s pronouncement when that ‘townfetched person’ Lynn Clayton falls into the coal-scooping: ‘Hit all come of you being a man out of place.’ Clayton, a theoretical and somewhat vague young man, comes with a partly industrial and partly sociological project to the least receptive community that he could well have chosen: Glen Hazard, hidden in the hills, and profoundly content with the ways of its fathers. High above the minute town, on the edge of a cliff, towers the great oak that has been farmer’s almanac to Glen Hazard for many generations; and the single-minded simplicity of Clayton’s decision to cut down the tree, and the pious fury of the hill dwellers at the thought of this sacrilege, symbolize the chasm between him who has come to improve and those who withstand improvement.
The Lane family, Clayton’s neighbors, are admirably drawn: Chad, emotional and taciturn; Thelma his sister, a dreamer, yet shrewd and poised; Vester, given over to frantic play, but capable of shrieking from the limbs of the threatened oak that if it goes over the cliff he goes with it; and Rock Bottom, a dog of the sober, superintending type, one of the excellent incidental dogs of fiction. But the major charm of the book is in the lovely cadences of Miss Chapman’s sentences, and in the poetry, the humor, and the ancient magic of her words.
ETHEL WALLACE HAWKINS