OK--I've finally finished it! This is my second reading--first time, I read it aged around 16 or 17 and from what i've been able to find on the Net, mOK--I've finally finished it! This is my second reading--first time, I read it aged around 16 or 17 and from what i've been able to find on the Net, most female readers' reactions change quite drastically if they read the book a second time when they're older and married, perhaps also a mother.
Well, I'm 20 years older, married, a mother... But I see the book pretty much the same way I did then, the first time, which makes me wonder if a) I haven't changed that much or b) I was unusually astute teenager! :) Maybe both!
Marjorie Morningstar is in no way a great book, or a literary one, and yet undoubtedly it deserves a special place in 20th Century American writing. Wouk's prose is too loose, too pedestrian, too lazy, even, at odd times, and pretty often one wonders what happened to those 1950s book editors. On the other hand, his depiction of place, of that magical 1930s pre-war New York is sometimes magical and always compelling, though I do wonder why he dwelled so little on the Depression. Is it because Wouk was and is a clear conservative? is it because he cannot properly draw up an authentic picture of Roosevelt? Or is it simply a lack of literary talent? In the same vein, it's also strange how pretty much absent is the threat of Nazism and Hitler until almost the end, though, to Wouk's credit, he did a masterful job in this regard when he does finally get to it, in Marjorie's first European crossing and her meeting/relationship with Eden (and what a name!).
In many ways, M.M. is a classical mid-century young girl's coming-of-age novel, complete with rebellion,staid parents, 'foolish' (read: unrealistic) daydreams, seduction by a Rake and loss of virginity. I think to most of us who at a similar age had had similar passionate but fruitless/pointless love affairs with charming, egotistical 'geniuses' a la Noel Airman, their love affair's ending came without surprise. I did root for Marjorie's decision at that point, though, because what (some) modern women know today that probably women in those days did not is that a) love is not enough (it doesn't matter how much he loves you, it has to be the right sort of love from the right man) and that b) you can't change anyone or attempt to take over the direction in their lives. Basically, if Noel wanted to 'settle down', build a successful 9-5 career, get married and have kids, he had to do it because he wanted that for himself, not because he loved Marjorie and knew she wanted that, thus in that way he could properly have her. Also, Noel is annoying and quite a fool from almost our first introduction of him, and nearly all of his 'speeches' and 'theories' sound like Major Male BS to me today. Lastly, there's also the point of a girl's self-respect. The guy talked and talked and talked his head off to and around her, then went off and had sex with 'easier' females. Who wants that? She was well rid of him.
On the other hand, Marjorie herself, while an appealing character, had her ups and downs in the sympathetic department--and i guess this is a result of being a product of Wouk himself, a man who is clearly not A Girl's Best Friend. Wouk is basically a dire conservative and a reactionary who sees little authenticity in the fair sex and who, at least when he wrote the book, could imagine no other ending for a 'bad girl' than deformity and no other ending for a 'good girl' than a successful husband, a solid marriage, a house and kids in the suburbs. It's sort of funny and tragic simultaneously. But it's not funny that for the book's ending, when Marjorie finally marries the nice successful Jewish lawyer (with the right initials, M and S) he almost bolts because he can't stomach that she's already lost her virginity to Noel and, though he accepts her anyway, it's as a girl with a 'deformity'! Jesus...
My last point is in regards to Wally--an awful, awful character. He's young, annoying, affecting, full of hot air. I never doubted for a minute that he'd make it in the business (I've worked in Hollywood and have known countless young guys like him) but his obsession with Marjorie struck me as juvenile and the last chapter, in his voice, as the typical nerd-who-made-good. Well, so what? Just because a guy's an annoying nerd and you don't want him does not mean that, in later years when he returns as a successful adult, you now have to appreciate him differently. He's still a nerd, albeit a successful one--possibly, he's still annoying. and Wouk's Wally The Nerd himself admits to career success but a divorce......more
I've always had a secret passion for 50s stories but lately, with Mad Men, it's blossomed way out of control! For years I've been collecting old and/oI've always had a secret passion for 50s stories but lately, with Mad Men, it's blossomed way out of control! For years I've been collecting old and/or out-of-print copies of 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s novels and very often I've tried to match a movie to a book, when I know it's based on one (and in that period, it usually is). But though I've seen 'A Summer Place' the movie, with Dorothy McGuire and Sandra Dee a number of times, I'd never read the original novel before. Then last week I re read Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar and embarked on a steady diet of other popular stories published in the 50s.
A Summer Place was Sloan Wilson's second big hit as a writer--the first was 'The Man in The Grey Flannel Suit' (filmed with Gregory Peck) with which he forever coined a 'term'; those very men, in effect, depicted in the TV show 'Mad Men'--basically, 50s commuting executives. In 'The Man...' Wilson explored the underlying tensions, disappointments, restlessness and general ennui that seemed to envelop nearly everyone who wasn't a straight shooter in the 1950s and he did so quite well though not, granted, with the lyrical power of Richard Yates' 'Revolutionary Road' (although Wilson was the far better appreciated author at the time, ironically enough). Then in 'A Summer Place' he attempted to dig deeper, perhaps to the actual costs of such enormous and unspoken unhappiness, to the depths of despair in people's lives when their lives follow choice made for reasons of social convention instead of authenticity. In this, he also quite though not entirely succeeds and where he fails is where the storyline and writing read dated. In many ways, most books are dated when we read them decades later but the difference between an artist (Jane Austen, say) or a craftsman (as Wilson unreservedly is) probably lies in the ability to transcend the dated aspect so that the contemporary reader temporarily 'forgets' she is reading something of 'another time.'
This story is about two thwarted love affairs: the first is between upworldly mobile Ken, who starts as off as the poor boy and ends up a true American success story, and gorgeous, passionate Sylvia, child of upworldly mobile parents of her own who, trying to avoid her family's descent, ignores her love for Ken in favor of an apparently 'safe' choice with blue-blooded Bart. As teenagers, Ken and Sylvia are in love but cannot give in to their love. Twenty years later, Sylvia has come down in the world with alcoholic, broken, penniless Bart and Ken is a millionaire with a straitlaced, puritanical wife he dislikes. Their old passion is immediately (perhaps too quickly) rekindled and after much 1950s wrangling of Good vs. Bad in the vein of Moral Absolutisms, this time they give in to their love anyway. The problem is, they both have kids: Ken has Molly, a daughter he adores who (perhaps in too easy a parallel to the teenage Sylvia) is fast becoming the sort of beauty that men want at once (thereby sparking her frigid mother and even frigidier grandmother to fits) and Sylvia has a younger daughter and an older son, John, who hints at becoming the sort of Gregory Peck male that Bart has failed to be (or Ken, for that matter, too): strong but sensitive and ready to fight for what he wants even when he is full of insecurity.
The really interesting thing in this book, though, is how well Wilson delineates some almost tragicomic 1950s characters: Ken's wife Helen and his mother-in-law Margaret are almost perfect portraits of a woman type that, unfortunately, society has produced to the thousands and writers have long delighted in showcasing (again, think Jane Austen's mother in Pride and Prejudice). These two self-righteous, sanctimonious souls of pure repression delight in repressing everyone around them and some of the scenes in which they appear (especially Margaret's absurd fall etc) made me want to knock them over AND laugh out loud! Similarly, his ability to enter the heads of Molly and John, first as young preteens (considered even younger in those days) and then on the cusp of young adulthood is quite stunning, and always poignant. While hardly a great writer, Wilson nonetheless manages to make yo care for his character. In many ways, I found his 'voice' throughout the story far more sympathetic and empathetic than, say, Wouk in 'Marjorie Morningstar'. I found Wilson's POV as young Molly more convincing and compelling--far less the product of the 'male gaze'--than Wouk's in Marjorie, and Wilson's ideas, coherent or not, more humane and less moralistic. He just seems, simplistically enough, a nicer man!
Where the book, for me, fails and feels dated is in the many unnecessary scenes and details that, really, add nothing to the story and today read entirely melodramatic: Bart's extreme alcoholism, the character of Todd Hasper, some instances of John at his awful boarding school--basically, these sections dragged on and today would most likely be edited out. The extreme judgmentalism of the era, though, a la Peyton Place is perfectly brought to light and, if melodramatic today, still rings true. Furthermore, I found both Ken and Sylvia--as the 'fallen' adulterers--quite tender and real in their love and concern for their children, even when the very 50s guilt they felt paralyzed such love until the end of the story, when their love is needed to 'save' the kids. I doubt any parent today would accept the terms of Ken's and Sylvia's separation or divorce from their exes simply because they'd been unfaithful: today (thankfully) your role as spouse does not impact your role as parent.
And, of course, there's the question of repressed sexuality, which manages to define everyone's life at that time, including Molly and John. If ever there's proof for the damage created by ignorance and lack of information or outlets, then this it. ...more