Saturday, November 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is an extraordinary writer, best known for her novels of the New York “aristocracy” during the Gilded Age. However, she also wrote short stories, plays, nonfiction, and novels covering diverse subjects.

My most recent read is one of her lesser known books, a World War I novel, A Son at the Front.

The protagonist is John Campton, an expat American artist in Paris. A fairly self-centered, shallow man, he has, after a rocky start, become a sought-after portrait painter. Part of his rocky start included a failed marriage that produced a son, George. (Campton’s portrait of George as a boy was pivotal to his success.)

His wife remarried a very successful, wealthy businessman while Campton was still a struggling artist. George was largely raised and entirely supported by his mother and stepfather, a fact that Campton resents. However, now that George has grown to manhood, he and his father have become close. (Although maybe not as close as Campton believes.)  George is about to arrive in Paris and the two will embark on a vacation together.

That was the plan. Unfortunately, this is the eve of the beginning of the war. And, unfortunately, although Campton and his ex-wife are Americans, George was born in France. Almost immediately after George arrives, the borders are essentially closed and George, a French citizen, is called for military duty.

Thanks to the machinations and connections of three doting parents, George is assigned to a safe desk job away from the front. But the parents live in constant terror he will be reassigned. As the war gets underway and then drags on, and the casualties mount, Campton’s reactions to his son’s safety are conflicted. How can George be so content to remain behind the lines?

The novel is a beautifully written psychological study not only of the protagonist but of numerous people in his sphere. War effects everyone, the privileged and the poor. Some throw themselves into relief efforts. Some try to ignore the war and get on with life. And everyone loses loved ones.

The action is muted for a “war novel.” Yet the tension is palpable. Campton is a sympathetic if not particularly likeable character. Of course, it’s a tragic novel. How could it be otherwise? But Wharton writes masterful tragedy.