A Brief Summary: Early Autumn follows the rich Pentland family through a summer in Massachusetts. Like many of Bromfield’s fellow winners, he explores the contrast between the old-money families and the nouveau-riche immigrants moving into the neighborhood. The head of the Pentland family is old John Pentland, whose son, Anson Pentland spends all his time researching and writing a book on his family history. Anson’s wife, Olivia, is quickly approaching 40 and feels trapped and listless. She befriends her new neighbor, Michael O’Hara, one of the new Irish immigrants disdained by the Pentland family. Many events quickly culminate at the end of the summer/early autumn (see what I did there?).
Setting: Durham, Massachusetts (a fictional town)
Time Period: 1920s, post World-War I
Review: The Complete Historical Handbook of the Pulitzer Prize System suggests that in the wake of Sinclair Lewis’s controversial rejection of the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, the jury opted for an uncontroversial young novelist, Louis Bromfield, in 1927. (Bromfield was only 30 at the time.) Looking at the big picture, I can understand why this book won the Pulitzer: it has all of the elements that the Pulitzer juries look for – a woman trapped by the constraints of society, the clash between old and new money, the rapidly changing American society at the turn of the century, a tragic love story. The story starts as all of these society stories start – with a ball hosted in honor of two girls who are home from boarding school for the summer. The hostess, Olivia Pentland, is becoming disillusioned with her life as the Great Lady of the Pentland estate. I found Olivia to be the most compelling character in the book; she is realistic, level headed in the face of a crisis, and very self aware of what her family expects of her.
However, I wasn’t really captivated by the book. The characters all fall a little flat and are one-dimensional to me. Part of the problem is that each character embodies an ideal, but Bromfield doesn’t work hard enough to make this happen. Olivia’s cousin, Sabine, comes back to town, and represents the life that Olivia didn’t live. Olivia’s daughter, Sybil, bears the weight of all of Olivia’s regrets and hopes for the future. Bromfield “tells” instead of “shows.” For example, Bromfield is quick to point out that the Pentland ancestors’ portraits were all painted by John Singer Sargent, expecting that to be enough to tell you what kind of family the Pentlands are. Bromfield tells us, the reason two women don’t get along is because they are too like one another, instead of writing this into the conversations so that the readers can make the connections for themselves. The story read like one of Agatha Christie’s earlier novels, where all of the clues are laid out throughout the story, but the connections are forced and solved too simply.
I would recommend this book to fans of cozy mysteries, Jane Eyre (just trust me), and people who enjoy reading about dysfunctional families.
- Explore the Pulitzer Project
- Read the book for free online via UNZ.
- The Bridge of San Luis Rey is coming up next – one of my new favorite books!
- Speaking of dysfunctional families, some of the recent books I’ve been thinking about include: The Family Fang, The Particular Everything I Never Told You, the Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.