THE SCARLET LETTERS by Louis Auchincloss
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An affair implodes a tightly wound WASP family in 1950s New York.

Literary lion Auchincloss (Manhattan Monologues, 2002, etc.) takes his razor-like pen once again to the ways and manners of the New York upper-crust of times past. The Vollard clan is about as East Coast aristocratic as it gets. Ambrose, the imposing patriarch, is partner at the white-shoe law firm of Vollard, Kaye & Duer, while the matriarch, Hetty, was the daughter of an impeccably respectable and wealthy Bostonian Brahmin family. As the tale begins, it’s the early ’50s, and the Vollards are trying to come to terms with the news that their daughter Lavinia, or Vinnie, is being deserted by her husband, Rodman Jessup, a rising star at Vollard, Kaye. The news burbles through the stuffy Long Island community of Glenville, where the Vollard lived, with all members of the gossip chain being thoroughly disenchanted: “A champion had inexplicably fallen; they could only raise their hands and deplore the degeneracy of the times. Small wonder that their planet was menaced with a third world war!” Having set up the stifling society in which the Vollards are currently entombed, Auchincloss then nimbly hops back in time to trace the evolution of the family and eventually the disastrous affair, from Ambrose’s troubled childhood up through the rise of Rodman and the sleazy machinations of the firm’s other star, Harry Hammersley (no points for guessing that a character so named would be a good-for-nothing). Along the way, readers are treated to a spiffy turn through old New York society, with all its genteel prejudices and entitlements, as well as some shockingly passionate behind-the-scenes affairs. Although from the title one imagines that Auchincloss is out to update the Hawthorne tale, he—fortunately—avoids that turgid style, and keeps things moving apace.

Speedy and fleet-footed fiction of the highest order.

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 2003
ISBN: 0-618-34159-5
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2003


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