Auchincloss’s umpteenth (The Headmaster’s Dilemma, 2007, etc.) tells the story of a prestigious Manhattan law firm and the families in its orbit.
Yet another variation on the story he’s been telling for decades, it’s also a moving depiction of an often tested, never abandoned lifelong friendship. Adrian Suydam, scion of a fine old New York family, presents, embellishes and reflects on his published history of the firm of Saunders & Suydam, woolgathering about the life of his partner-mentor Ernest Saunders, a flinty conservative who in old age “achieved a national reputation as the stalwart champion of the old ways.” The more liberal Adrian has always deferred to Ernest’s brilliance and resolve. As he recalls their early years, during which Adrian fought with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders while Ernest steadfastly acquired professional experience and power, the novel gradually becomes a series of episodes: the brilliant, heartbreakingly brief life of Ernest’s perfect son Mark; the messy, demanding adult lives of both partners’ surviving children; the scandal-ridden and politically significant cases that made the firm’s reputation and sometimes put Saunders and Suydam at odds with each other. Further stories are told in extended “memorandums” written by several major and minor characters; handled woodenly and not credible as the narratives they purport to be, they are the novel’s major flaw. The final chapters are superb, notably the long-withheld story of Ernest’s dignified wife Bessie, whose stoical understanding that she has sacrificed passion for a life of reason and security shakes the compassionate Adrian to his core and may wring tears from the most jaded reader. Auchincloss is our Trollope: a productive, elegant artist whose keen understanding of the small worlds his characters inhabit permits him to examine their surprising variety with an energy undiminished even this late (he is in his 90s) in his brilliant career.
A small masterpiece from an old master whose oeuvre bulks large in our literature and will last.