Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Book Review: And Ladies of the Club

I'm not even sure how And Ladies of the Club got on my to-be-read list, but I'm glad it did, and I'm glad I didn't cross it off the list without giving it the chance it deserves. The novel is set in the fictional town of Waynesboro, Ohio. It begins in June, 1868, with the graduation of Anne Alexander and Sally Cochran, both 18, from The Waynesboro Female College. They are asked to be charter members in a literary club, newly formed by Mrs. Rebecca Lowery, headmistress of the college. There are 12 charter members when the club holds its first meeting the following September. And Ladies of the Club, at nearly 1,200 pages, follows the lives of these 12 women and their families for the next 62 years.

I found the story to be a study in contrasts and similarities, contrasts particularly in the social mores of the time. Guided as they were by Victorian scruples in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, women's behavior was expected to be formal and irreproachable, especially in any social setting. They dressed in an extreme and modest fashion that must have been horribly uncomfortable, especially in the midwest heat. Women who were pregnant were not to be seen in public once their pregnancies became obvious. And their professional opportunities were extremely limited. Even secretarial work was deemed unsuitable for a woman at the time in which the novel is set.

I was surprised by the similarities to present day I found in the story. There was a major crisis on Wall Street at the turn of the 20th century. The Socialist Movement was gaining ground with "forward" thinkers. While socialism might be a great idea in a perfect world, it's proven to be a profound failure when practiced by fallen humanity. While those looking ahead to the Socialist Movement didn't have the failed socialist/communist experiement to learn from, I find it hard to believe there are people in America today who would opt for such a system. I'm just sayin'. Union organizers were introduced in the story. A great and necessary idea at the time, but as often happens, the pendulum has swung too far. There was economic chaos which led to the Great Depression and the financial ruin of some of the characters I'd grown to love. There were concerns with every presidential election throughout the course of the novel, and social reform was an important theme. A line that came almost at the end of the book in regards to FDR's New Deal was quite reflective of discussions we hear in our own current political climate: "Once the people get the idea that the government has an obligation to support its citizens, there'll be no end to what they will demand."

I really was amazed by the similarities, but more than that I was amazed that I enjoyed the novel as much as I did. It's given me a new perspective on historical fiction. Not that it's become my new favorite genre. I'll be a very discerning reader when it comes to historical fiction, but I'll no longer dismiss it offhand.

I was quite impressed with the author, Helen Hooven Santmyer. She was 69 when she began "writing the epic story that would set her place in American literary history." It took upwards of 10 years to write. She was 87 when it was published in 1982. "One year later, a fateful chain of recommendations led publishing giant G.P. Putnam's Sons to purchase the rights to the book . . . And Ladies stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 37 consecutive weeks and held the number-one position for seven. The Book-of-the-Month club made Ladies its main selection and sold more than 162,000 copies, and a paperback edition sold more than a million copies. "Santmyer, a humble Midwestern woman turned overnight success, was bombarded with interview requests from major television networks and magazines. Santmyer was happy about the attention to her work, but didn't always understand it: "I think it's the kind of book most people are not interested in," she said. "Part of the interest is because I'm an old lady." (The quotes in this paragraph come from this very interesting article.

While reading And Ladies of the Club I was reminded more than once that "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it" (George Santayana). I give And Ladies of the Club an A+ and a strong recommendation.

What novel(s) have you read that turned out to be so much better than you expected?


Megan Sayer said...

I've not heard of this book before Sharon, but it sounds interesting. I really enjoy historical fiction - but I still feel the need for discernment. I'm often disappointed by contemporary-historicals: ones that have been written in the last couple of years, because they often don't feel truly authentic.

Two of my all-time favourite books are ones that both surprised me how much I enjoyed them, and both took an awfully long time to find a way in, but were incredibly worth it. They were Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.
Maybe reading "real" historical fiction has spoilt me for modern stuff. Hmmm.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Great post, Sharon. I'll have to look for this one.
I read "Snow Falling on Cedars" even after hearing some negative comments from friends about it, but I'm really glad I did. The author uses the setting as character in a powerful way, and his imagery moves the story along. Now I need to rent the movie to compare.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Debbie. I too read Snow Falling on Cedars, having heard nothing about it. I loved the story. So did everyone in my book club.

Kathleen Popa said...

Thank you, Sharon. I haven't read much historical fiction in some time, which is strange, since I love history, and think we can learn things in novels we can't learn in textbooks. I'll have to try this one.

Nicole said...

Aahh well, as usual, I'm weird. Hate historical fiction. Well not "hate". Just only read a very small percentage. And having said that, the book which was so much better than I expected: Redeeming Love. Yeah, I know. I was way late to that party but so glad I attended. An anointed story. Loved it.