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The Scarlet Letters Hardcover – November 5, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Auchincloss's latest novel takes place in familiar territory-the world of the privileged classes in 1950s New York-and acquires extra resonance from its mirroring of Hawthorne's famous tale of guilt and redemption. The story opens with a scandal: respected New York lawyer Ambrose Vollard is shocked by the flagrant adultery of his favored son-in-law and heir apparent, Rod Jessup. The author then explores Vollard's rise from ignored son to head of his beloved law firm; his marriage to Hetty, the intelligent daughter of a Boston preacher; his indulgence of his favorite daughter Lavinia; and her relationship to the somewhat puritanical Rod, who is troubled by ghosts of the past, personified in the more hedonistic Harry Hammersly, his best friend and colleague at Vollard's law firm. When Vinnie and Rod divorce and she quickly marries Harry, the story-the battle between a too-strict moralism and a cynical disregard for right and wrong-is only beginning. Auchincloss's writing, which can seem somewhat old-fashioned and burdened with authorial exegesis rather than demonstration of character, makes perfect sense in the context of this near-allegorical morality tale, and readers are rewarded with an embellishment of the simple dichotomies of Hawthorne's novel with an appropriately ambiguous ending. The 1950s context allows the scenes of spiritual, sexual and legal corruption to have an impact they might not in a modern setting, and while the author makes apparent the force of personal history justifying each character's actions, it is always clear who the good guys and bad guys really are. This is a satisfying and sometimes surprising story from a past master of New York tales.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Ambrose Vollard has a successful career as managing partner of a distinguished Wall Street law firm and a useful marriage to the practical daughter of an old Boston family. The only thing lacking is a son, until his favorite daughter, Vinnie, marries Rod Jessup. But adultery destroys Vinnie's marriage, and change in the form of both her husbands--the honorable Rod and the less honorable Harry--undermines the old ways at Vollard Kaye. There is a sameness to Auchincloss' elegant tales of the Manhattan brownstone set, especially true in this novel, which is a reworking and expansion of a clever story in his 2002 collection, Manhattan Monologues. Some of the names have been changed; Ambrose was previously called Arnold Dillard. Some passages have been transplanted from the story word for word. But Auchincloss now provides more backstory, especially about Arnold--Ambrose, rather, and also takes his tale further into the future. In giving himself more scope to flesh out characters and examine shifting mores, Auchincloss sacrifices some of the story's original punch, but his many loyal readers probably won't mind. Mary Ellen Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top customer reviews
I like Auchincloss' books. I liked The Scarlet Letters. I enjoy a peek into the world he knows so well and most of the rest of us only imagine. And I enjoy novels where the quotidian is made interesting. There is no murder or mayhem, or sexual perversion, in The Scarlet Letters. But it is about life and love, and honor. A book by Auchincloss is like a quiet walk in the woods on a weekday afternoon. You get to think about things in repose, not necessarily important things, but just things.
Auchincloss's style is refined and formal, with sentences which never lose their way, even when the sentence structure itself is convoluted. Old-fashioned in his approach to his characters, Auchincloss conveys the impression that he does not want to invade their privacy by showing them in their weakest moments. His is a buttoned-up sort of characterization, one which is appropriate to a novel in which ideas are more important than the uniquenesses of character. As a result, the characters are somewhat wooden--illustrative of traits, rather then real, breathing humans--and their actions are sometimes hard to fathom. He has a tendency to announce, rather than show through the characters' actions, the ideas he wants to convey.
Auchincloss is a confident and practiced story-teller, however, with a clear belief that fiction is capable of conveying ideas at the same time that it is entertaining. His themes are clearly illustrated, and his characters, with their foibles and worries, share many of the same concerns as the rest of us, despite their elevated social status. Though the ending is a bit melodramatic, the story is intelligent and fun to read-a fascinating reflection of life and mores of just fifty years ago. Mary Whipple