Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Book Review: "The Late George Apley"

An acquaintance of mine has been telling me since I moved to Boston (almost three years ago now) that if I want to understand this city, I must read John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley. I have, at long last, done so, and as I find is so often the case, I regretted deeply having waited so long. Marquand's book, subtitled "A Novel in the Form of a Memoir," was first published in 1937 (and won the Pulitzer Prize a year later), but I found its charms utterly timeless.

Told through letters and other documents interspersed with the personal reminiscences of the compiler/narrator (a college chum of the aforementioned late George Apley), the novel is the story of a Brahmin's life. Tracking George Apley from his birth at the tail end of the Civil War until his death in the early years of the 1930s, Marquand offers up a brilliantly delicate satire of the upper-crust culture of Boston as the city grew and changed around a cast of characters who tried their best to come to grips with the times of which they (sometimes unwillingly) found themselves a part.

Apley's life follows a trajectory seemingly predetermined: the proper upbringing (winters on Beacon Hill, summers at the family estate in Milton), education (Harvard, naturally), a bit of travel (Europe with an aunt and uncle), and marriage (but only to a suitable girl of the right sort), followed by gentle involvement in the family business and constant involvement in various civic and social clubs and organizations. It is a life of privilege and duty which Apley takes up almost unquestioningly (with a notable exception or two), but is also a life from which happiness and personal pleasure are almost entirely absent. As he ages and begins to educate his own children, it is almost painful to watch the cycle begin anew - and I doubt I'm alone in thinking that the realization of that caused George Apley no small amount of pain as well.

As I was reading I couldn't help but imagine how this remarkably insightful book must have received in its own time, when Marquand was writing without any of the benefit of hindsight we readers of today unthinkingly bring to our own experience with the book. Above all, The Late George Apley is a powerful and trenchant examination of Boston life, then and perhaps indeed even now: Marquand's comparison of Boston and New York (which reads in part "Of course, no one from my cautious part of the world is entirely at home in New York") made me laugh; at least in my case, I've always found that comment quite true.

Portraying a world which is, for most of us at least, utterly alien (where the potential removal of some rosebushes is enough to prompt an entire series of letters, or the unintentional burial of a distant aunt in the wrong portion of the family plot sufficient to spark a deep and abiding family feud), Marquand's wry style, pointed wit and incredible talent of perception make the pages of his book absolutely dance with vitality and emotion. We are privy to the innermost (or near-innermost, anyway) workings of George Apley's mind, a mind never at ease, never comfortable with the "to the manor born" life, but never quite ready to take that great leap into the unknown.

Highly recommended; one of the best books I've read so far this year.