Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Twentieth Century, through the eyes of a True Character

I've talked before about how difficult it can be to pull off a good historical novel. It's even harder when the novel has a broad scope: when you're talking an entire lifetime, for example. It's easy to contort your characters into trying to hit all the major newsworthy events. So, it's to Laurie Graham's credit that she pulls it off admirably in The Great Husband Hunt, and manages to create a particularly vivid character whose actions and attitudes have stayed with me a few days after finishing the book.

Poppy Minkel was born in the early 1900s, to an upper-middle-class-and-striving family in New York City. It was an era in which marriage prep for girls is like college prep for people of the same socioeconomic class today: it begins early, it encompasses everything, and it's what all future hopes for the child are staked on, often regardless of the child's own wishes. Poppy's husband hunt will be a challenge because she's not very attractive, but an aggressive program of neck whitening, ear bandaging and cosmetic surgery is planned -- until Poppy's father dies on the Titanic.

The night of the sinking of the Titanic is a formative one for Poppy. Poppy's mother and aunt decide that it means the end of Poppy's husband hunt, for she is now needed at home to provide companionship to her mother. Poppy, on the other hand, is distraught by the news that her father's ship has sunk and sneaks out to the White Star offices with her sister's husband. They become separated, and Poppy is stunned to find their former Irish maid among the survivors. Even more stunning is that the maid is dressed in a Worth dress and listed on the passenger registry as Mrs. Minkel. These facts make Poppy determined to chart her own course that doesn't have anything to do with men, although she's equally as resistant to the course her mother and aunt have charted for her.

Laurie Graham allows us to get to know her characters intimately, and judge them over the course of their lives, until the majority of them are in their graves. Our feelings shift back and forth. At first, we feel for Poppy, stifled by the social-climbing ambitions of her mother, aunt and sister, hemmed in to conventionality on all sides. But when Poppy liberates herself, it's not really in the most noble of directions. She leads an interesting life, but it comes at a cost to those around her. She becomes selfish, and the fact that a degree of selfishness is necessary to live a life other than the one pre-selected for her at birth doesn't soften the fact that she hurt many people. She can be callous, too, and she winds up as absorbed in a beauty regimen as her mother and aunt were. It's hard to know how to feel about Poppy.

We also gain more sympathy for Poppy's family: all three of the women, ultimately forced to re-evaluate everything they've been taught about marriage providing happiness and fulfillment. Poppy's mother remarries to a man that she loves and winds up reverting back to her Jewish roots. Poppy's sister Honey was trained carefully to be a delicate Victorian flower, but the training doesn't serve her in good stead when faced with an indifferent husband and an unruly child. Her aunt's still irritating, but over time, the reader comes to see how she means well.

I read The Future Homemakers of America several years ago, about a group of women who meet as Army wives during World War II. I liked how the title of the book gained deeper meaning. Several of the women in that book did, in fact, belong to that club in high school. They had no plans beyond getting married, having children, and cooking delicious meals and decorating their houses beautifully. The mid-to-late twentieth century had other plans for them, however. The title of The Great Husband Hunt works the same way. For all of the women in the story (for most people, I guess) the Husband Hunt greatly influenced their lives to come. Some of the trophies didn't bring the promised happiness. Others did, but not for the duration promised. Some got thrust back into the Hunt when they thought it was over. Some didn't have to hunt at all, but had the Husband come to them, unexpectedly.

At any rate, this is an excellent read. Next time I'm at the library, I will see what else Laurie Graham has written and pick it up. The two books I've read by her are fun and thought-provoking, and I'm looking forward to seeing more.

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