ROUGHLY FOUR YEARS AGO, John O'Hara abandoned his long attempt to serve up the Great American novel in three-deck fictional sandwiches. It was a good thing, both for O'Hara and his admirers. For O'Hara sometimes seems to know too much about the minutiae of U.S. society for his own good as an artist. He is better in smaller compass. Since early 1960, he has brought out three good novellas, two normal-sized novels, a book of plays, two volumes of superlative short stories, and now Elizabeth Appleton, an attempt to sum up the life of an American woman in 310 fast-paced pages.
To her twice-divorced sister coming to visit her in Spring Valley, Pa., Elizabeth, nearing 40, seems the conventionally perfect wife. Dress: cultured pearls and sweaters. Husband: an amiable history professor turned dean and now gunning for the presidency of Spring Valley College. Children: a boy at St. Paul's, a girl at Farmington.
Invasion of Privacy. Predictably, this outer, middle-class placidity masks a history of inner whirl—some past, some still to come. Hints dropped to the sister by Elizabeth's friends, a series of flashbacks, provide Elizabeth with a full set of sexual and social complexes. The mother-dominated daughter of a New York social snob, she has been nudged into a more active life and a less glittering marriage by her democratic-minded father. For years she has tried to live down to her husband's income, loyally cultivated the rest of the faculty for the good of his career.
But is it all loyalty? Or is she compulsively turning back to the past by pushing her husband toward the presidency of the college, which he doesn't really want? A little of both, probably. O'Hara doesn't say. But when she drifts into an affair, it is with a man of her own class.
There are moments when O'Hara seems to be saying you can get the girl out of the Social Register, but you cannot get the Social Register out of the girl. And there are times, in capsule form at least, when Elizabeth's odyssey sounds like a radio serial that has lost its snap and crackle. But in the telling, it frequently pops with O'Hara's unequaled expertise as a domestic historian. Tuning in on a bridge game or a couple chatting over the supper dishes, watching a college president pushing responsibility for a nasty school scandal off onto the shoulders of a young dean, he catches dialogue which seems not so much an artistic invention as an overheard invasion of privacy. An early scene in Southampton, when Elizabeth's mother politely grills her daughter's not-quite-acceptable suitor at dinner is taut with O'Hara's unique ear for innuendo and eye for man's decorous inhumanity to man.
Also Topic A. In earlier O'Hara, Elizabeth's affair might have destroyed her marriage. Now older and increasingly concerned with the final assessments of a lifetime, O'Hara sends Elizabeth back to her husband. Forced to accept the fact that her husband and her marriage are not what she dreamed of making them, she finds that they are both a lot stronger than she thought.
Chronicling Elizabeth's difficult progress, O'Hara unhappily relies on what is bad about his past writing as well as on what is good. Sex is too often not only Topic A, but also Topics B and C as well. His preoccupation with small-town sociology and the lives of secondary characters sometimes leads him to freight his dialogue with extra information until it sounds like a young playwright's first act. The experiment may be merely an attempt to put old wine into a slightly new bottle. It is not vintage O'Hara, but the vineyard is unmistakable.