I picked up Mrs. Parkington (1942) by Louis Bromfield at a thrift store some years ago. My copy is a first edition, but after reading this one, I’m pretty sure it isn’t really worth anything. I first started reading it a few years ago. After I got through the first page, I thought, “This book is going to be good. I’m going to savor it. I want to read it later when I have time to enjoy it leisurely.” I didn’t get back to it until a few weeks ago.
Yes, the first page was good. This book is the type and style of writing I enjoy: realistic twentieth century fiction. However, it went quickly downhill. While it certainly was fun to read, and while I loved some of the characters, I could tell exactly why this one was a thrift-store find and not on any of the literature lists I’ve read during my college education. It is popular fiction. It is dramatic. It is disjointed. It isn’t great literature, but that’s okay.
The story is of 84-year-old Mrs. Parkington, a wealthy widow in New York City with many annoying relatives. She is the matriarch, and she must deal with all of their problems. She is approached early in the book by a grandson-in-law named Amory, who has swindled all of his clients of their fortunes and is begging her for financial help so he can avoid prison time. He’s the Bernie Madoff of the book.
This privileged, foolish, and arrogant grandson by marriage reminds Mrs. Susie Parkington of her husband Gus. The novel visits her earlier years, telling us that she began as the daughter of innkeepers in the western United States, where she knew about horses, sunsets, and mining. Gus found her there, and when her parents died in a mining accident, she kind of accidentally married him, although she was only 17.
This led to her life of comfort and pleasure in the big city. However, Gus always gained his money by stepping on other people. We don’t get a lot of detail about his exact financial dealings, but we realize through the narrative that he’s selfish and ruthless. His natural habitat is Wall Street, and this novel gives us insight into the ways in which the world has little changed. We still have robber barons and Wall Street tycoons who care little for other people and who see this sort of gain and greed as their right.
They are described as “the kind of men who believed astonishingly that privilege placed them above the moral laws of the average citizen. They were . . . a special product of a special era in American life; they were born of a period undistinguished by morals and distinguished principally by an undue respect for success, no matter how it was achieved. But they were, too, types that were eternal” (p. 100). It’s true. We still have these types, and we may never be rid of them. Tom Wolfe explored them in the 1980s in The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Interestingly, Susie Parkington has one great-granddaughter who has turned out to be much like Susie. Janie is level-headed, doesn’t care for money, and feels deeply. Mrs. Parkington, in the end, helps Janie to escape some of the embarrassing circumstances of her family (including that her father Amory is indicted), and makes sure that Janie won’t have to deal with the curse of money. Her inheritance is delayed, as Janie requests, until she’s older and has had time to earn her own privileges and struggle to make her own life. This storyline explores just how corrupting money can be, and how much more we learn by having to earn our own and by not caring much for it at all. Mrs. Parkington’s family is a study in corruption (of children and of morals) through too much ease.
Overall, the novel is an interesting study of one woman’s life, and her dealings with colorful and obnoxious relatives and the memories of the past. I enjoyed it. It reminded me a little of the type of novel Dorothy Whipple wrote. These novels are fun, light, and enjoyable, while tackling pertinent subjects of social ills and problems. If you enjoy the realism of the early twentieth century, give this one a try.