Since my last post a good two weeks ago quite a lot has happened in my world. The most exciting thing being an immensely enjoyable week-long road trip to Alaska in our old Triumph Spitfire. Top down all the way, though we were pretty chilly those cool northern British Columbia summer mornings!
An overwhelming magnitude of most excellent scenery. Glaciers and totem poles, the tock-tock of ravens everywhere we went, and the fragrance of sweet clover from the hayfields and roadsides overcoming our little car’s perpetual miasma of Old British Car over-fuelled exhaust.
It was grand.
Just before we took off on our drive, a kind neighbour passed on to us three boxes full of dusty vintage hardcovers she’d been shuffling from shelf to shelf for years. In between the collections of sermons and prayers-for-the-day, the moralizing children’s tales, and the expected classics were some now-obscure popular novels which were bestsellers in their day. E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, and Ethel M. Dell, anyone? Or how about Kathleen Norris?
I packed a random handful of the most promising along on our trip, but was so exhausted each night from the miles of windy driving and the glorious sightseeing (and possibly the brisk northern air combined with those afore-mentioned exhaust fumes) that I only managed to make my way through one of them.
An Apple for Eve by Kathleen Norris, 1942, was a contemporary romance novel by the prolific San Francisco writer. If you’re not familiar with the name, here’s a brief biography, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Kathleen Thompson Norris (July 16, 1880 – January 18, 1966) was a popular American novelist and newspaper columnist. She was one of the most widely read and highest paid female writers in the United States for nearly fifty years, from 1911 to 1959. Her stories appeared in the Atlantic, The American Magazine, McClure’s, Everybody’s, Ladies’ Home Journal and Woman’s Home Companion, and she wrote 93 novels, many of which were best sellers. She used her fiction to promote values including the sanctity of marriage, the nobility of motherhood, and the importance of service to others
An Apple for Eve by Kathleen Norris, 1942. This edition: P.F. Collier and Son, 1942. Hardcover. 340 pages.
My rating: 5.5/10
An Apple for Eve was the fourth novel by this writer that I’ve read, and based on past experience I assumed it would be a readable, well-detailed, decidedly earnest though not off-puttingly preachy, easy to take up and put down light read. And it was all of that.
Teenage Loveday, daughter of a much-respected family of once-wealthy California Quakers, falls tempestuously in love with a young man of not quite top-drawer origins. She promises eternal faithfulness, and sends her fiance off to flight school with the promise to marry him as soon as he can finish his training and set up a modest starter home.
Much drama then ensues. Loveday becomes orphaned; we learn of a mysterious family fortune possibly hidden somewhere in the decaying family mansion; Loveday is semi-adopted by a wealthy family and introduced to high society and rich living; Larry-the-fiance stops writing; Loveday finds herself in a mutually-attracted relationship with an already-married playwright; heart rendings all round!
Eventually Loveday and Larry reunite and marry, but things go swiftly downhill. For Larry is something of a ne’er-do-well. He can’t keep a job, he argues with any sort of authority figure he comes across, he’s deeply jealous of Loveday’s affection for her adopted family, who keep swooping in with welcome cash donations to ease Loveday’s continual financial woes, for she and Larry and their three small children are sliding ever deeper into a lower strata of society than either of them started out in.
Re-enter Loveday’s other lover, the wealthy playwright Chris. His wife has just died, and he feels himself free to woo the still-lovely Loveday, as her husband is obviously unwilling to man up and support her in the way which she deserves. And Loveday must admit that she returns the illicit passion. But will she be able to set aside her marriage vows and divorce her sad-sack spouse? Larry, though continually inadequately employed, occasionally sullen, and generally slightly mopey, is quite a sweet guy at heart, who has never done anything to deserve spousal desertion.
Take a peek up to the bit about Kathleen Norris’s championship of the sanctity of marriage vows and the nobility of motherhood for a Great Big Clue as to what our heroine eventually decides.
I’ve occasionally seen this author’s work classified as “Christian Romance Fiction”, and while I wouldn’t go that far myself – she seldom directly references God or religion, and her characters get up to some rather worldly shenanigans – I can see why that is a tidy and appropriate categorization in this current anything-goes age.
This not particularly top rate novel is redeemed by its generous period detail and its depiction of rural California life in the early World War II years, when America was poised on the brink of committing to the overseas conflict. There is ongoing discussion of the situation in Europe and the role which America should play in the escalating war; some characters go north to Canada to join the R.A.F.; during the course of the novel the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor takes place, precipitating the U.S.A.’s decision to jump into the fray. Back on the home front, wives and mothers scramble to compensate for breadwinners heeding the call to arms, and, just a little later on, to deal with the inevitable deaths of loved ones and the return of the wounded.
By 1942 Kathleen Norris had honed her writerly craft to a very competent level, and working one’s way through this melodramatic tale some 75 years after its publication is no great hardship, with the expected allowances for era-expected attitudes, as well as a soupçon of bigotry and racial slurs. Those of Chinese ethnicity come in for most of the little digs, as Loveday’s household staff (for of course our heroine has devoted family retainers despite her desperate poverty) are descendents of the California Gold Rush “coolies” of a generation or two before. A typical off-the-cuff comment from Loveday, in reference to her housekeeper: “The Chinese are trustworthy because they find it pays better to be honest.”
As in the other Norris novels I’ve read, the chief heroine is almost impossibly beautiful, universally admired, and stunningly competent at everything she does. Though she temporarily allows herself to be tempted – remember that clue-providing title? – “Eve”, “apple”? – I couldn’t work up any surprise upon finding out that she ultimately does the morally right thing. And of course earthly rewards follow thick and fast, though Norris pleased me by not tying up quite every loose end.
Some years ago I read and reviewed 1937’s The American Flaggs. My opinion of the writer’s style engendered by that first experience of her work have not changed in my subsequent readings; I’ve since acquired and read The Venables (1941), Bread Into Roses (1936), and, just the other day, Butterfly (1923). Good summertime books, not too deep, and the annoying bits are easily brushed aside. Next in the queue is The Heart of Rachael (1916), which I may dip into this evening, before setting aside Norris’s all-of-a-pattern heroines for something with a bit more oomph.