CLOVER by Otto Friedrich


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Clover, the wife notable by her absence from The Education of Henry Adams, figures relatively little in these 400 pages of historical small-talk, and then chiefly as a conundrum. The book's point of departure--as those who sat through ""The Adams Family"" on TV may guess--is that Clover, after 13 years of apparently happy marriage, killed herself; and not, merely, Freidrich suggests, because of her adored father's death. So, with conjectures galore, he demonstrates a pattern of despondency and instability in her family; of hot-tempered, unbending husbands and hurt, unhappy wives in his (""The Adams,"" Mrs. John Quincy is quoted as remarking, ""were 'peculiarly harsh and severe' to their women""); and--most tenuously--of intermittent tremors in the Clover-Henry union. But of serious depressions there is only one record, early and sketchy, as against the evidence of only minor perturbations in the weekly letters to her father that constitute the major source of our knowledge of Clover here. She was, in fact, a spirited and acute observer, most often acerbic (of the obstreperous Robert Browning: ""None but a poetess could have written the 'Portuguese Sonnets' to such a husband""); but not always--a Titian ""looks as if it were painted with powdered jewels soaked in sunshine."" And she is winningly self-aware, drawing out an elderly, ailing Spanish archivist for three hours so Henry can pursue his researches (""the interest I took. . . was under the circumstances genuine""). These brief passages, the freshest, most delightful in the book, also tend to undermine Friedrich's key assumptions--that Henry was contemptuous of Clover's intelligence; that the titular character of his novel, Esther, was not only modeled on Clover (an old, much argued idea) but a derisive portrayal (which other interpretations flatly dispute); and that she must have been wounded thereby--one possible cause of her suicide. Following her (cloddishly described) demise, he expounds on the statistics and literature of suicide; notes that her sister and brother were probably suicides too; and concludes--on a new note--that no single factor, but rather ""an inability to fight back,"" drove Clover and others of her kind and time to self-destruction. Disjointed, chronically discursive, and almost without dramatic grab, the book fails, most critically, to present a coherent, emotionally convincing portrait of Clover.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Simon & Schuster