Friday, April 9, 2010

NYRB Challenge #26: Lucky in Love?. . .

Whew! If you thought the matrimonial machinations in Jane Austen's world were intense, then welcome to the busy social-scheming world of 1930s and 40s New York as depicted in Letty Fox: Her Luck by Australian writer Christina Stead. Just add more adultery, abortions, booze, and trips to Reno, and less clothing and inhibitions.

The novel traces the life of the precocious Letty and her younger sister Jacky through their adolescence and early twenties, and neither girl has much sense or sensibility. Letty is observant and street-smart, a self-proclaimed communist, who is always reading and trying to improve herself while caught up in the love affairs of all the careless adults around her. Her unhappy mother Mathilde mopes through the whole novel - her husband has definitively left her for his mistress and she refuses to give him a divorce and move on herself. Letty is influenced by both her strong-willed grandmothers - the unsympathetic Grandmother Morgan, an independent businesswoman, always looking to set up a new hotel and find a husband for her beautiful daughter Phyllis, and the complaining, slightly senile (but with many secrets) Grandmother Fox who must nevertheless be tolerated as she's rumoured to have left $5000.00 to Letty and Jacky in her will. Grandmother Fox is a wonderful recurring comic character - a scene that runs for several pages in which she tries to get someone to buy her a chicken is priceless. Letty's childhood is very much dominated by women; she sees her father infrequently and though charming, clueless, philandering uncles occasionally make an appearance, it's usually when they are on the run from their current or ex-wives looking for money. This is an unreliable world of multiple affairs and break-ups, where marriage is not seen as the culmination of finding a worthy life partner, but as an increasingly competitive and sophisticated - though short-term - strategy for financial survival:

Mathilde was bitter in lament over the wickedness of the world, but the rest of the women were openly discussing the profit of the alimony game, which now took on complications that they, in their simple, old world ways, had never suspected. They had simply divorced men and lived modestly on men's labours during their respectable lifetimes; but here were brilliant female gamesters unmarrying and remarrying, seizing parts and profts. The women were as shocked as huggermugger sidewalk traders are at the bold feats of speculators and profiteers on the exchanges.
And though one hopes things will be different for Letty who does do her best to educate herself and find work in order to be independent - she writes some very funny advertising copy for a dress shop - she already has a string of affairs and one broken engagement by the time she is twenty. Letty has the misfortune to fall in love - and lust - with almost every guy she meets, leading to both comic and tragic adventures. Her life may be a saga of exhaustive madcap and this novel is probably two hundred pages longer than it needs to be (Letty is barely 25 by the end of it), but you can't help laughing at - and with - our heroine: "Some people I know say I have bounce, I am preposterous, I elbow people out of my way and am out for myself. I am . . .but at least it doesn't impose on anyone; I am who I am, and I make my way in the world." Throughout her romantic romps she retains her sense of self-deprecating humour along with a strong sense of self, and the relationship with her beseiged father - one of the more positive in the novel - is charming. Her signature at the end of her letters sums her up perfectly: Letty Marmalade (always in a jam).

This is definitely for readers who love Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love or Love in a Cold Climate, and as with those novels, this is also partially autobiographical. Bolters certainly abound in both.

1 comment:

Isabella said...

I read this one a couple years ago -- I totally agree it goes on a bit long. Yeah, it made me laugh a lot, but it also made me want to slap her silly on occasion! Quite the wild life!