Because the 1918 Pulitzer Prize winning novel His Family is thought by many to be an award to celebrate Ernest Poole’s previous novel, The Harbor, I decided to read the novel the jury recommended as a runner up, Alice Brown’s Bromley Neighborhood, and see for myself which I enjoyed better. Unfortunately, getting my hands on a copy of Bromley Neighborhood took a little longer than I hoped because I had to request it from library storage.
Bromley follows two families, primarily: the Neales and the Brocks. A few generations back, one of the Neales deeded a small parcel of their own land to the Brocks, and every Neale since has attempted to buy it back, with no success. The shadow of that plot of land has impacted the relationships of every generation of Neales and Brocks. The book moves from the patriarch, Thomas Neale, trying to get the land back, to the lives of his two sons, Hugh and Ben, and the Brock daughter, Ellen. It follows them as they mature and stumble through love and relationships and what World War I means for their small country community. And every so often a plot of land and it’s ownership comes back to make some sort of mischief.
In terms of comparing it to His Family, it’s difficult for me to say with any assurance whether one is terribly better than the other. His Family has some great prose, an interesting set-up in a man discovering himself in his daughters, and a powerful social message for the time. Bromley, on the other hand, is all about the characters and the environment. I would say the prose is on par with His Family, if not a little better. But I didn’t find the plot or setup of the novel as intriguing. By the second half of the novel some sort of bizarre love pentagon had emerged and rolled awkwardly toward an ending that seemed to make everything all right for all the characters involved, but left me with more problems and questions about how any of it would actually work out. But while that awkward relationship tangle is the most base plot behind the novel, what Bromley is really about is the community: the varied and interesting characters, all complex, with their own motivations and shortcomings, desires and confusions, and most importantly: growth. The characters evolve and change and mature (or sometimes don’t), and in that sense, Bromley is really a novel about people and community. And it is a good novel about people and community.
I have a hard time calling Bromley Neighborhood better than His Family, primarily because of the whole love pentagon thing, and it’s unsatisfactory resolution, but there are plenty of redeeming aspects to this novel, which has been all but forgotten now. It gives a glimpse of the country neighborhood life leading up to World War I, and gives a glimpse of American life that has been long lost. And if you do, somehow, manage to lay your hands on a copy of the book, I think it’s worth reading.
Currently reading: Java Head by Joseph Hergesheimer