Wednesday, May 17, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Nancy Hale was a best-selling author in the 1930s and 40s whose work is enjoying a recent revival. A book of short-stories, Where the Light Falls, was released in 2019, edited by Lauren Groff. And now, her most celebrated novel, The Prodigal Women, has been re-released by The Library of America. The book’s introduction, written by Kate Bolick, was recently featured as an essay in the New York Times.

The Prodigal Women is a tremendous novel. Set aside time to read it, as the print length is ~875 pages. The time will be well spent.

The book immerses the reader in the lives of three women, all growing from girlhood to womanhood in stuffy Boston during the Jazz Age. It is a time when social mores are changing and opportunities are opening up for young women. We may picture flappers and suffragists and good times for all (until the Crash), but this deeply psychological novel shows just how simplistic that image is. These women are unmoored.

Leda March is a poor cousin in an old-money, established Boston family. A childhood of insecurity and unpopularity leaves her with a need for social power, for respectability. She tries to sacrifice an unsuitable love for the stability of marriage with her staid older cousin, but she is stifled by boredom when she is with him.

Betsy Jekyll is the second daughter in a social-climbing Virginia family who transplant themselves to Boston. Full of light and joy as a child, Betsy latches onto Leda, who is equally pleased to finally have a friend. Betsy’s chaotic, fun-filled family seems a refuge to Leda. But the two grow apart as they reach “debutante” age. After a failed love affair, Betsy escapes Boston’s strictures by moving to New York where she works for a fashion magazine, then turns to modeling, and then to essentially living off men – with all that implies.

Maize is Betsy’s older sister. A southerner at heart, Maize never quite recovers from the family move to Boston. She is a renowned beauty and accomplished flirt, but the only Boston man who interests her is a self-centered artist, who marries her under duress. Maize’s love is a desperate, all-consuming one. Her eventual descent into mental illness was precipitated by this obsession, but it is just as likely that the mental illness was behind her obsession.

The lives of these women are fascinating. But their misery is palpable. Is this frantic unhappiness a product of the times? The novel is set in the 1920 and 30s. Hale, who wrote this as a contemporary novel and not a historical one, fills the pages with realistic depictions of life in that era. Although many of the conversations seem stilted to a modern reader, they serve to remove the reader from today and place her squarely in that century-ago age.

This hardly seems a feminist novel, but it is a reminder to us of how much we owe to those women who challenged tradition and pushed for the progress that we now can enjoy without the psychological toll – for the most part. This book can also be seen as a cautionary tale to those who would shove women back into Victorian roles. The men are all miserable too.

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