Peking Picnic, the Atlantic prize winner, by Ann Bridge (Atlantic Monthly and Little Brown, $2.50), unquestionably has the first requisite of a good novel— it is interesting. Moreover it is immediately and unflaggingly interesting. It hardly becomes a reviewer who has rather shunned novels dealing with China to pronounce upon the originality of Peking Picnic, or a reviewer who has never traveled in China to pronounce upon its realism; but conviction overcomes the sense of fitness, and I record my firm belief that this novel is both original and expert.
Peking Picnic is the chronicle of a week-end house party at the monastery of Chich T’ai Ssu in the hills west of Peking. This party is lightly planned by the hostess as a picturesque form of entertainment for a visiting professor of psychology from Cambridge; but the few days of its duration produce unlooked-for events and work crucial changes in a number of lives.
The small group of men and women who are the ingredients of the house party make a piquant combination. Yet with one exception I find them skillfully differentiated and opposed rather than strikingly alive. The exception is Laura Leroy, the central figure of the novel and the one through whose eyes we follow and philosophize on its events. Mrs. Leroy is not an impeccable creature, but she is an altogether charming one, full of vitality and warmth. Moreover she is possessed of courage and of much skill in the art of living. I believe that Miss Bridge’s best endowment as a novelist lies not in characterization nor yet in her striking gift of clear, swift narrative, whether in moments of comedy or of high drama, blit in her deep and sensitive feeling for beauty and her skill at rendering the essence of isolated moments. As a rule these are subjective moments in which someone’s spirit is caught up into the sense of continuity or of mystery. I believe that for anyone who reads this novel otherwise than in skimming pursuit of the adventure it records, it will be such moments that linger longest. The suspense in the excellently narrated capture of the picnickers by Chinese bandits will be forgotten, I think, sooner than the spell of the pages that tell how Judith Milne, on the fantastic terrace at Chieh T’ai Ssu, sings unaccompanied in the sweet-smelling night; sooner than those times of almost trancelike intensity when Laura Leroy physically feels herself back in her former lover’s rooms at Oxford, or with her children in her garden at Garsover. But longest of all will persist in memory the rich and strange beauty that is the setting of Peking Picnic.
The half-quotation that is the title of Edith Wharton’s new novel indicates plainly enough that the conflict in this book is resolved by a clarifying of ideals and purposes. The Gods Arrive (Appleton, $2.50), the further history of Vance Weston, the young writer in Hudson River Bracketed, shows once more Mrs. Wharton’s definiteness in artistic and spiritual standards.
The Coils Arrive has a triple interest. It is a study of the life of Vance Weston and Halo Tarrant after they have entered openly into an irregular relation in the expectation that Halo’s husband will divorce her. It is a study of an unformed and rather weak nature struggling between a true devotion and an aberration of the senses. And it is an expert and ironic picture of the afflictions that must be endured by a successful writer, and incidentally a crisp expression of the author’s opinion of the stream-of-consciousness fiction as practised by the many.
Once more in this novel one recognizes Mrs. Wharton’s command of the significant detail that makes clear a whole situation or state of emotion. All of Vance’s misery of mingled grief and distaste at Grandma Scrimser’s funeral is in ‘the readings from Isaiah and James Whitcomb Riley intermingled by a practised hand.’ All of the callousness of Floss Delaney’s common soul is in her triumphant recounting of her cleverness in blackmailing the wealthy Shunts family by means of the desperate love letters of young Honoré Shunts: ’He would n’t listen to reason; but he had to. I never saw anybody cry so. . . . It was horrid of him, not being willing to see how I was placed.’ And all the physical and spiritual healing that Vance finds in the Northern woods is forecast in the moment when he gets out of the train: ‘The icy air caught him by the throat and suddenly swung him up on wings.'
If anyone in the novel may be said to sum up, it is the egregious Grandma Scrimser, — so truly pious, so canny in her acquisition of funds for her creed, so robust in her negation of whatever might dampen the spirit of mortals, who whispers on her deathbed: ‘Maybe we have n’t made enough of pain — been afraid of it. Don’t be afraid of it.’ The Gods Arrive is an effective study of growth through pain.