A novel about a man who, as a single parent, must reconcile himself to his daughters growing up and his own life becoming full again. 1926.
It’s amazing to think that I’ve been reading (and loving) books for nearly twenty years. To some, twenty years might signify nothing, a mere flash of a camera. But for me, at a time in my life when the accumulation of decades is still a novelty, twenty years is almost beyond belief.
And yet, it’s even more amazing that it has taken me twenty years to truly understand what it means to love a book. That book was After Noon.
Last week I made the rounds of the thrift shops around town, hunting out new-old material for ALB. While browsing the hardbacks—weeding out the new stuff, weeding out the middle-aged trash—I found one book that looked promising. A little disappointed at only finding one candidate, I was all ready to check out. I took my book up the counter and pulled out my wallet to pay. However, I only had large bills, and the store had just opened so might not have been able to make the change. I apologized, the lady behind the counter apologized, and off she went in search of change. While I stood there waiting, feeling like I really should buy something more than just this one little hardback, my boyfriend noticed a separate shelf, right next to the check out counter.
The shelf was exclusively vintage books. And it was FULL.
I stepped back from the counter, drawn to these unexplored books. The lady returned to the counter, apologizing again for the change issue, but I told her not to worry. It seems I wasn’t quite done yet…
A few dictionaries, a few books falling apart, some books about sports…But then I saw this little blue book with gold lettering (no dust jacket, as usual). Published in 1926, by an author I’d never heard of. So far, so good. I did a quick Google search on my phone and found…nothing. Absolutely zero information on the book. No reviews anywhere, barely even a listing on the major sites. A flip through the book itself, however, told me that this definitely seemed like my kind of book.
And yet, it was marked $10. Did I really want to spend $10 on a book I knew nothing about? It seemed like a bit of gamble. I almost put it back, but then this little voice in my head said, “If you don’t get it, you know you’ll wonder about it for as long as you live.” Okay, well, maybe not that long, but still. Point taken.
Then, owing to a new person at the counter—another clerk to fumble with making change, and on top of that it was a teenage guy, all bashful at having this young woman witness his struggle—I ended up getting the book for $2, just like the one I had previously picked out. I suppose I could have said something, but I didn’t. I took it as a gift from the universe.
I began reading After Noon as soon as humanly possible. It starts with the back-story of Charles, a young man whose wealthy young wife deserts him and their twin girls, solely because he no refuses to live the life that she desires: that of a vagabond in various upscale European hotels. Work, he says, is what he needs! To feel useful, rather than an accessory to his fancy wife. She says fine then, and off she goes with her latest lover.
The next chapter picks up about fifteen years after this, when his twin daughters are grown and ready to head off in their own directions. One daughter is cute and affectionate, her father’s clear favorite—and probably the reader’s as well. His other daughter is a champion of unpopular causes, especially political ones (she is the one who really places the novel in its historical context). What’s more, unlike her prettier sister, who always has a string of suitors she takes lightly, the serious daughter is finally showing interest in a young man.
In a way, After Noon is about a man who is not old in years, but is aged through experience, now in the afternoon of his youth. Charles’s life revolves completely around his daughters, and as they show signs of leaving the nest he finds his world being torn apart, just as it was when his wife, his first love, left him so suddenly.
Luckily, he happens to make the acquaintance of a woman who is young but widowed, visiting from America and in need of friends in London. Charles finds in her a ready, intelligent companion, who instantly befriends his daughters and helps him adjust to a reduction in his household.
I was particularly touched by the relationships between Charles and his daughters, and by the conscientious and loving way in which he raised them. As one suitor puts it:
I know what the sacrifice is. She’s yours. She’s a thousand times more yours than most men’s daughters are. And you were only just beginning to get any real satisfaction out of her. And then I come and take her away, and reap all the benefits, and leave you with nothing. It’s inevitable, but it’s damned hard.
Charles’s only comfort comes from Lydia, the American widow. Still, he has so many issues with marriage as an institution, which is no surprise, given the pain his own marriage caused him and the pain he is now experiencing from his daughters’ marriages. He has so many issues to sort out, in fact, that the healing of this deep hurt becomes the focal point of the novel from then on out.
While reading this book, I thought several times of Henry James, particularly for his depictions of the interactions between Americans and the English. (Lydia, the American, even learns about the English through reading Henry James!) But more so this book made me think of those books about Fallen Beautiful Women (particularly Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth), except instead of the story following the path of the falling woman, we say, “Well, she’ll get what’s coming to her, don’t worry!” and follow the story of the heartbroken, deserted husband, father to the children she abandons without a second thought. This path was just as interesting, a lot more heartfelt, and every character still managed to have depth.
Incidentally, some further research later revealed to me that After Noon was the #9 bestseller in the year it came out, 1926. Susan Ertz also wrote about a dozen other books, another of which was also a bestseller, and none of which are currently read by, well, anyone, it would seem.
Going back to my initial point, After Noon taught me something new about books. Not only did its journey into my world seem like pure magic, or fate, or whatever, but as I grew to love the story itself my adoration of its vessel grew beyond any previous bounds. I would read short segments at a time, trying to make the story last just a little longer. When not reading, I would become completely engrossed by its beautiful gold lettering on the cover. I loved and admired the dimension of each letter, pressed so deeply into the ridged blue cover. Its size, moreover, was pure perfection: it seemed, beyond any doubt, like the absolute embodiment of a book. If someone were to say, “Tell me, what does a book look like?” I would hold up this very book and answer, “THIS—this right here is a perfect specimen of that thing we call a book.”
And, inside and out, yes indeed. It is.
Reminded me of:
- Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth)
- Henry James (The Ambassadors; The Portrait of a Lady)
- E. M. Forster (A Room with a View; Where Angels Fear to Tread)