THE BOOK CLASS by Louis Auchincloss


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I shall be dealing with the wives and daughters of the managers of money and industry in New York City, what is sometimes called 'society,' and I have arbitrarily selected as representatives of this society my mother's 'Book Class.'"" That's how fey Christopher Gates, a 60-year-old interior decorator, begins this slight mosaic--supposedly a ""sociological examination"" of women's ""power"" in the days before Gloria Steinem. But what follows seems more like a string of awkwardly linked short stories or anecdotes, most of them in Auchincloss' watered-down Henry James mode. First comes a sliver of autobiography, as Christopher recalls the 1936 Gates family crisis: Father, a prince of Wall St., had done some shady tax-evading; Mother, to help save him from a jail-sentence, had to lie on the witness-stand--which appalled Christopher and left Mother ""deeply ashamed."" And the subsequent chapters, with contrived shifts of viewpoint and narrators, focus on eight other members of Mother's literary-appreciation club. Justine Bannard, mother of Christopher's prep-school roommate, reclaims an unfaithful husband with guile, toughness. . . and a few regrets. Obsessive hostess Georgia Bristed, glimpsed circa 1950, lets her salon become a pro-McCarthy stronghold--for purely non-political reasons. (""Every other hostess in town was against him--what choice had I but to take the other tack?"") Adeline Bloodgood, the group's sole spinster, recalls how she turned down a law-prof suitor (with populist leanings) in order to stay true to her adored Uncle Luke, a famed jurist (circa 1920) with a pure-law approach. There's a flat, obvious sketch of man-hungry, twice-divorced Leila Lee, a victim of booze and pills: ""Like the old black in Showboat, she was 'tired of livin' and feared of dyin'.'"" Mylo Jessup, culture-starved wife of a polo player, hires Christopher to do major aesthetic redecoration for her in 1958--and reveals how she was introduced to art-and-literature, decades ago, by her dying, beautiful, part-Jewish young cousin Rick Wise. Justine Bannard returns in 1961, along with another matron, Polly Travers of Moral Rearmament: each, in her own way, fights to defuse the extramarital affair between Justine's son and Polly's daughter. And the final vignettes are the limpest of all: the US-born widow of a French marquis frightens her slimy son by writing her memoirs (the usual WW II/France secrets); and ancient Maud Erskine, in 1980, recalls her never-consummated marriage. Throughout, Auchincloss drops anvil-heavy references to James--but he offers only Jamesian surfaces without Jamesian depths. Nor do the anecdotes add up to a persuasive portrait of pre-Lib womanhood. An unshapely Auchincloss sketchbook, in other words--if pleasant and painless enough for his usual readership.

Pub Date: Aug. 2nd, 1984
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin