ELENA by Thomas H. Cook


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A maddening novel about this century's world of letters in the States, Elena presents a cradle-to-grave memoir by William Franklin about his spinster sister, a towering literary figure from small-town New England. She's the author of New England Maid, Calliope, Inwardness, The Quality of Thought in American Letters, and To Define a Word, and her mental tenor as a novelist-critic is mercilessly didactic and without humor. This is not to say that William doesn't find her witty in some passages of her writing, but to most readers of this memoir--who receive sample paragraphs of her life's works--she'll emerge as a really pompous if not solemn pill, whose main mode of speech is the thumpingly hollow pronouncement. Her worship of Thought and Thinking is justified by her clear-minded last months as an old woman dying of congestive heart failure, alone in her beach cottage near Brewster on Cape Cod. She's dying without an ounce of sentimentality to mar the perfection of her departure, an ending even she finds somewhat fearful. These last days may well move the reader, as anyone would be moved by any old woman's death this nicely observed. Elena, however, spends part of it separating the wheat from the chaff in her works, during an imperial interview she has granted Saturday Review; and while she is harsh on her achievements, some will be even harsher and suspect that all of her books are overblown instant relics. But Elena's long life, her stays in New York and Paris, her years of social commitment with lover Jack MacNeill during the Thirties, and later years with fellow literary intellect Jason Findley, and her last decades of greatest achievement allow her chronicling brother some memorable moments and happy patches of description. None is more compelling than William's epiphany in Lower Manhattan's gigantic secondhand Strand Book Store, his head aswim with his sister's dying, about him so many books, like aisles and aisles of fossils.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin