Sunday, 30 August 2009

"The Two Mrs Grenvilles" by Dominick Dunne

This book was first published in America, where the author was a well-known journalist, writing in particular for Vanity Fair. Sadly, he died a few days ago (the day before Ted Kennedy), having been suffering painfully from bladder cancer for about a year. That it was published in America as long ago as 1985 and yet (I believe) for the first time in the UK in 2009 only shortly before his death nearly a quarter of a century later is inexplicable, for this is a very fine novel indeed.

I will not give away the plot, for there are at least a couple of very important matters of which readers need to be kept in ignorance, but it is set in and around New York high society, chiefly in the forties and fifties, and tells the story of a tempestuous marriage between an "old money" rich kid and an opportunist showgirl. The writer blends real events and characters into the proceedings with great skill, and never does the suspension of disbelief seem to require any effort at all.

The text is stylish, polished and elegant. I felt that the ghost of Scott Fitzgerald stalked the pages, but also the Somerset Maugham of The Razor's Edge, or the Anthony Burgess of Earthly Powers. In fact, these are not idle comparisons, since there is much of both Maugham's Isabel and Burgess's Hortense in Dunne's Ann Arden. In particular, the very brief scene in which Burgess describes Hortense being dropped outside the narrator's apartment building naked and comatose after a wild party kept coming to mind. Essentially, though, Ann is a more successful version of Patrick Hamilton's Netta from Hangover Square. What Netta aspires to, Ann actually achieves, and achieves brilliantly.

The most tragic figure in the book is probably not the doomed Billy, but his mother, the second Mrs Grenville of the title. Recognising from the outset what sort of woman Ann is, she is rendered incapable of doing anything constructive about it by her own dispassionate relationship with her son. Her autocratic approach, which is all she is capable of, backfires horribly, pushing Billy headlong into a secret wartime wedding. Thereafter the book is as much about her as it is about Ann and Billy, and it is Dunne's great skill that though she is sketched lightly, she is sketched deftly. We get to know her thoughts largely through her own rather stilted utterances, yet we feel her pain nonetheless; sheer hatred hidden behind a mask of forced politeness.

It is not the least of Dunne's accomplishments that he manages to achieve a tenderness of sorts at the end, or at least some genuine pathos. With Dunne's passing, the world has clearly lost a very fine novelist indeed. I felt this book to be better than Updike and perhaps even equal to Bellow. It is my regret that I have only just come across his work.

The Two Mrs Grenvilles is published by Arcadia under ISBN 978-1-906413-03-3

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