1931: Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes


From the Dust Jacket:

Mrs. Barnes’ first long novel covers the better part of the life of Jane Ward, from her girlhood in Chicago in the 1890’s through a stormy and aspiring youth, her marriage with Stephen Carver, typical son of typical Bostonians, a passionate episode or two, the World War, and finally the full years of middle life and of dramatic adjustment with the new generation. The rich, humorous, poignant, dramatic narrative flows swiftly and absorbingly to a moving end.

The book is full of the very stuff of life itself, and no better picture of the American social scene in the last four decades has been painted. It definitely places Mrs. Barnes with that little group of American women writers who can be depended upon always to give us keen fictional entertainment and that tingling sense of recognition which is the reader’s deepest pleasure.

My Thoughts:

The dust jacket does a decent job of summarizing the plot of Years of Grace, as it follows Jane Ward through several decades of her life. It sees her go through school, attend a few years of college before dropping out, marrying, having children, and seeing her children grow up and begin to marry. The prose is simple, but well-written. It works in some ways to draw the reader into and through the narrative in an easy progression. The prose is never spectacular, eye-catching, complex, or searingly memorable, but it is also not clunky, distracting, or frustrating.

The hardest part I had with the book was being interested in Jane Ward’s life. I struggled with the first three parts of the book. First, each of the first three parts is named after the man Jane finds herself in love with through that section of the book, and I found it frustrating that she is defined primarily by the men in her life (This doesn’t get any better in the nomenclature of the fourth and final part, named after her children). Although, from Jane’s traditional and romantic point of view, there are many ways in which she does define her life by the men in it and the loves she feels, so perhaps my frustration isn’t with the book as much as with the character of Jane Ward. I had a difficult time connecting with her through much of the book.

The first part drew me in because Jane seemed much more independent than her mother felt she should be. She spends time with her friend (and first love) André and his parents (his French father and English mother), in their small flat, which offends her mother’s upper middle class sensibilities. She reads French plays that are almost as offensive for having “paper covers” as for the risqué content in them. She even fights her mother to go to college, and though she doesn’t graduate, she attends two years at Bryn Mawr, putting off her entrance into the social scene back home.

The Jane Ward through the first part of the novel is interesting and rebellious and progressive in the 1890’s, but she soon drops much of that, coming back home without graduating, marrying a man, and starting a family. Through the next few sections of the book I found myself often disinterested in Jane. She finds that her marriage doesn’t have any romance (although she had a decent idea of that before she got married) and she settles for stability and tradition.

Jane does find herself falling in love with another man later in the novel, and there is a bit of a spark injected into the narrative as Jane contemplates love, marriage, the idea of infidelity versus loyalty, and what she really wants out of life, but it is a meager spark in the book, and I didn’t find myself genuinely interested in Jane’s story again until the final section of the book.

The fourth part deals with her children as they grow up and begin to marry and find their own ways in life. It deals with increasingly progressive ideas from the younger generation, including divorce and female independence and drive apart from marriage. The younger characters provide counterpoints to earlier and older characters in the novel. Whereas the older characters choose to remain in their marriages, some of the younger characters divorce to pursue a new romance they’ve found. An older single woman in Jane’s husband’s family, who was denied her dream of owning a cocker spaniel kennel with one of her female friends is counterbalanced with Jane’s own daughter, Jenny, who opens a kennel for Russian wolf hounds with one of her friends, splitting her time between the farm with the dogs, and a flat in New York City.

Many of the changes in societal values Jane sees as dangerous or foolish, and begins to feel her age through this section. But she is also supportive of her daughter’s ambitions beyond marriage, and she finds herself, for the first time in a long time, truly enjoying and appreciating her marriage with Stephen. When she tries to discourage the younger generations away from divorce, it is not entirely from the perspective of what is traditional and proper, but also from her own perspective and her changing attitude toward her marriage over the years, the recognition that relationships change and evolve over time in ways you don’t expect.

The final part of the book had some redeeming qualities, but on the whole, I found it difficult to connect with Jane and her character and that time period. While she had some acute and interesting thoughts toward the end of the book, the novel was written for people who lived within that older culture, and even though it began to break that paradigm with the progressive actions of Jane’s children at the end of the book, took much of that culture and society for granted, assuming the reader associated with it, instead of providing an interesting deconstruction and inspection of the culture itself. And though that is me speaking from a perspective far in the future, I think it shows that Years of Grace has not held up as well as some of the other novels from around that time period.

Favorite passage:

What did wives know of husbands, or husbands know of wives? Stephen had absolutely no conception of the thoughts that passed daily through her mind. No knowledge whatever of that vast accumulation of confused impressions and vague convictions and wistful desires that made up the world of revery in which she really lived. Stephen had his world of revery, too, of course. Every one had. In the first disarming experience of love you tried to share that world. You flung open the door. You offered the key. But somehow, in spite of love, with time and incident the door swung slowly shut again. You never noticed it until you found yourself locked securely in, with the key in your own pocket. You really wondered how it had come to be there. You could not remember just when or why you had stopped saying – everything. But at the end of twenty years of marriage it was astounding to consider the number of things, that somehow, you had never said –

Why you should read it:

It’s not a terrible book, but I never really connected with it. If you’re interested in the changing culture and societal values in the upper middle class around the time of World War I from the older, traditionalist perspective, you’d probably be more interested in it. It wasn’t poorly written or poorly plotted, and the characters were all well realized and written; it just didn’t grab my interest when reading it.

Currently reading: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck


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