One of the clear implications of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is that the harmony of society depends on the harmony of each household. The war has sickened the United States by driving a wedge between men and women; the war has sent millions of men overseas to murder and witness death and have sex with local girls while millions of American wives and fiancees waited cheerfully at home, nursed their faith in storybook endings, and shouldered the burden of being ignorant; and now only honesty and openness can repair the bond between men and women and heal an ailing society. As Tom Rath concludes: "I may not be able to do anything about the world, but I can set my life in order."

If you believe in love and loyalty and truth and justice, you may finish reading
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, as I did, with tears in your eyes. But even as your heart is melting, you may feel annoyed with yourself for succumbing. Like Frank Capra in his goopier films, Wilson asks you to believe that if a man will only show true courage and honesty, he'll be offered a perfect job within walking distance of his home, the local real-estate developer won't cheat him, the local judge will dispense perfect justice, the inconvenient villain will be sent packing, the captain of industry will reveal his decency and civic spirit, the local electorate will vote to tax itself more heavily for the sake of schoolchildren, the former lover overseas will know her place and not make any trouble, and the martini-drenched marriage will be saved.

Whether you buy this or not, the novel does succeed in capturing the spirit of the fifties--the uneasy conformity, the flight from conflict, the political quietism, the cult of the nuclear family, the embrace of class privileges. The Raths are a lot more gray-flannel than they ever seem to realize.

-- Jonathan Franzen writing in 2002