A family of five are just scraping by on the income made by the father — an absent-minded if big hearted man, with a passion for poetry but few marketable skills. The mother cares deeply for her children and is more than willing to sacrifice her life for them, but she is not the mothering type. The mental strain of trying to be a homemaker is killing her.
Father is fired from his job. He’s all too cognizant that he’s failed his family and that he’ll only go on to keep failing them. All he has to give them that’s worth anything is his $10,000 life insurance policy. He contrives to “accidentally” fall from the roof. However, he’s a failure even at suicide and only manages to paralyze himself.
After their meager savings run out, Mother applies for an entry-level job at the same department store her husband had worked for. She gets the job, excels at it, and is quickly promoted through the ranks. She begins bringing in more than twice the income Father had and expects further advancement. Her health and mood improves.
Father, bedridden, is stuck in the house. He gets to know his children in a way he never had before, particularly the youngest, with whom he forms a particular bond. As his health improves and he’s able to get around in a wheelchair, he takes on the housework and childrearing and finds that he enjoys doing it. The children, always of delicate health and in a constant state of cowed, silent awe by their mother’s overbearing, begin to blossom under their father’s care.
The physical cause of Father’s paralysis has passed, and although he remains for a time wheelchair bound from psychosomatic reasons, he and Mother eventually realize that he is able to walk. Both know that society will dictate that he go back to work and she return home. Depression. Mother, to her own horror, finds herself plotting a murder-suicide. The doctor is called. He has also realized what will happen to the family if it returns to its previous structure. After a long, closed-doors consultation with Father, he emerges to tell the others the bad news that Father will never leave his wheelchair again.
I was a good way through the second segment before I realized this was a collection of short stories and not a novel. I was wondering how all those new characters and settings would work back into what I had guessed was the first chapter.
Ferber’s writing style took me a while to get used to. I frequently lost the subject of sentences and had to re-read them a couple times to figure out what she was talking about. I’m not sure why — the stories are told in a simple and conversational manner. With all the 1910s and 1920s media I consume, I’m generally comfortable with the slang, but Ferber still manages to throw me a curve ball now and then.
The stories are variable. The only one I truly disliked was the one about the amnesiac veteran, because it was stupid. I enjoyed most the story about the farmer that marries poor and is forced to move to the city. I also liked the story about the all-too-temporary dropping of social barriers during the war, but I have to deduct points since it’s essentially just “The Admirable Crichton” (J.M. Barrie, 1902) (adapted for the screen in 1919 as “Male and Female”) with WWI being subbed in for shipwrecked.
I must say to Ferber’s favor that, with few exceptions, she doesn’t pull any punches. The stories conclude the way they actually would in life — nothing magically comes together to fix all the conflicts and few characters have entirely happy endings.
A strange woman enters the life of an Alaskan man who’s pledged his life to avenging his father’s death. The mystery is strung out a bit too long and the end is rather disappointing. It could have been worse, but the story turns from something daring to something quite conventional.
A girl from a sleepy Welsh town is just about to resign herself to spinsterhood at the ripe old age of nineteen when she falls in love with a visiting English naval officer. She’s thrown into despondency when her proposal is not enthusiastically met. A friend of her late mother abruptly enters her life and whisks her away to London, where she hopes to forget the sailor and where her new godmother hopes to play matchmaker. The ending is as you’d expect, but I will say that the details caught me off guard. I was quite sure what the godmother’s scheme was by the finish of the second volume and found myself entirely wrong by the finish of the third.
I’m tempted to say this is a book with characters and no plot, but that isn’t entirely true. There is a slight through-line, involving a soon to be homeless widow and her once upon a time fiance who goes to extraordinary means to win her back, but altogether, than might be eight or ten pages out of the book. The greater part is simply a look at a small Cape Cod town and the people who inhabit it, and the colorful stories they tell each other of sometimes questionable veracity.
A woman from a formerly wealthy family becomes a stenographer when her parents die and her fortunes are ruined. Her boss offers her an unusual side-job: to pose as his fiancée for twelve months. Strictly business at first, the fictional engagement gets more real as the year progresses.
King Philip of Spain hates his more popular brother, Don Jon. Dolores, the daughter of the captain of the palace guard, loves Don Jon. Dolores and Don Jon want to marry, but her father, Mendoza, forbids it because obviously a marriage will be arranged for Don Jon with some foreign royal as a political alliance. The two take the first steps toward eloping, but then the Philip and Jon get into a scuffle and Jon is killed. Mendoza takes the wrap, because he idolizes the King with naive zeal. Dolores takes a drastic approach to saving her father’s life.