Tuesday, May 05, 2020

34. A Time To Be Born by Dawn Powell

My on-deck shelf is not inspiring me these days, so I asked meezly if she had anything interesting on hers.  She passed me this one, which I first was quite interested in, then slightly turned off by the prose on the first page.  However, I decided to commit and was happy to find that the style in the beginning was deliberately flourid, representing the state of mind of an introductory but secondary character.  The rest of the prose is certainly not sparse, but much more digestible.  Actually, it's extremely well-written, with funny, scathing metaphors and vivid physical descriptions capturing New York City in the 40s and briefly the environs upstate.  The main stuff though is about the people, their personalities and their relationships.  And wow, what people!  The sympathetic characters are weak and insecure and the rest are absolutely loathsome.  Yet it is all portrayed in such a rich and enjoyable way that you love to loathe them.  Powell portrays upper-class New York (and striving upper middle class) as utterly devoid of any principles in their constant quest for status.  They are almost inhuman.  I mean just really awful people.  I mean I have a strong contempt for the American class elite, especially in  New York City but even I found this portrayal pretty extreme.  She is just scathing.  Perhaps she is not wrong in portraying powerful people as being completely without any empathy, given what we are seeing from the nouveau dotcom billionaire class of today.

The story revolves around two main female characters, the unterfrau of Amanda Keeler, now a celebrity author and married to a media tycoon and her old "friend" Victoria Haven, who comes to NYC to get away from heartbreak in their shared hometown in the midwest.  Keeler is ruthless and only accepts Vicky into her world because it gives her a justification to set up a love nest where she can have an affair. The narrative is really about poor, wounded and so insecure Vicky as she navigates the sophisticates around her and Amanda's power over her.  There are several other threads as well and it is all quite enjoyable, though one has to suspend some disbelief at the extremity of the characterizations.  In Powell's depiction, there is only class striving.  It is not until the end that we get a glimpse of an actual counterpoint, of a character being a little bit normal and real and not making every decision based on how it will be perceived by those of higher status.  It's like adult Heathers.  I did find the ending slightly jarring and simple, as once you pierce the ridiculousness of status (especially with America joining WWII), it pops like a balloon, putting all the previous behaviour in question. 

Since she lent me the book, I will share a link to a review by meezly of another Dawn Powell book, with a nice summary of Powell's career.

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