Virginia Rowans (Patrick Dennis)
Despite Patrick Dennis’s trenchant and sometimes problematic skewering of 1950s New York society and their behavior and attitudes, this was, at its heart a sweet story. The young married couple in whose company we spend almost all of our time is good, kind, smart yet rather innocent, and thoroughly decent. They are the only people in the book who escape the authors cruel yet funny barbs.
The book begins with an epic quarrel between John and Mary, once very happy and in love, and now dissatisfied. Their 6-year marriage changed a year ago when John gave up his writing career, took a high-paying job, and moved to Riveredge, an exclusive suburban mecca for affluent New Yorkers of a certain status and income.
Here is the ideal Riveredge couple as described by the author:
Together they deplored reactionaries, Hollywood and Miami, bright colors, communism and fascism, juke boxes, slums, child labor, strong labor unions, vulgarity, social climbers, snobs, comic books, tabloids, the Reader’s Digest, Life and the Book-of-the-Month Club—although they solemnly agreed that anything that instilled the reading habit among those less fortunately endowed couldn’t be entirely bad. You could hardly wonder that everybody loved the Martins.
“Well, you’re out bright and early,” Whitney said, his tortoise shell glasses and splendid white teeth sparkling in the sunlight. Whitney’s statement, while cordial, also managed to convey surprise, criticism and hope for reform
John has stormed out of his house and left Mary. He spends the day on his own meeting old friends, visiting old haunts, spending time with his shady and vulgar boss of one year, and almost cheating on his wife with the boss’s evil daughter. After a series of appalling encounters and painful adventures, He realizes that his wife is the only decent person in New York City and environs.
Meanwhile, Mary, his lovely wife, is having a similar set of horrific experiences throughout her day. She goes to the city in the clutches of her “friend”, Fran, to escape her big sister Alice a relentless scold and bully.
Alice was active in Planned Parenthood. A couple of decades earlier, Alice would most certainly have been jailed for passing out contraceptives on the cathedral steps. Today she took a more moderate, but no less ardent, stand. Alice believed that those who could afford children should have all the children they could afford and when they could afford them. Alice always said that it was the duty of superior people to bring forth superior offspring. So far Alice and Fred had produced two—a boy of seven, given to chronic nausea and bedwetting, and a girl of five with nineteen distinct allergies. Alice and Fred felt that they could now afford to treat mankind to yet another superior being, and its birth had been as carefully plotted as the Invasion of Normandy.
By the time John and Mary coincidentally meet up at the end of the night outside the old apartment in which they were so happy, they have been through the gauntlet, are ready to fall into each other’s arms in relief and gratitude. They are more than ready to start a whole new life. Or rather, return to their old one.
Patrick Dennis wittily leaves no section of the populace unscathed. Many of his descriptions of the people and their antics are laugh-out-loud funny, but most are pretty bitter as well. He saves his most stinging barbs for…well everybody gets pretty well raked over the coals. The unconscious and casual racism is a little hard to take even if you can keep it in the context of its times. It is quite similar in tone and structure to The Joyous Season, but some of his zingers in that novel come off gentler, funnier, and less corrosive coming from the first-person narration of a formidable but lovable 10-year-old boy.
October 16, 2021