Anyone else care to weigh in with suggestions or perhaps second opinions on these two?
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
“So the rumors about the mute were rich and varied. The Jews said he was a Jew. The merchants along the main street claimed that he had received a large legacy and was a very rich man. It was written in one browbeaten textile union that the mute was an organizer for the CIO.”
In a sense, this is the story of a town full of lonely people and outcasts who come to project their own identities on, and thus find relief for their loneliness through, a local deaf mute named Singer. And yes, anyone out there who is thinking, “Hmm. Obvious Christ figure” is absolutely right. So if that’s something that pushes you away from a book, I’ll admit that staying away from this book is probably a good idea. But if, perhaps, this device used to draw together and define the various characters seems a bit obvious, the wide range of things we learn about the characters and the great range of characters peopling the late 1930s Southern town portrayed in this 1940 novel, the first and most widely known of Carson McCullers’s career, make up for it.
Among others, we meet a precocious tomboy adolescent, a black doctor, the town drunk, who is also a follower of Karl Marx, and a restaurant owner who admits to his wife that he, indeed, “like[s] freaks” when his wife criticizes him for befriending lonely outcasts. McCullers’s portrayals throughout the novel, in fact, represent a sort of literary hospitality to “freaks.” Especially for an author who was 23 years old at the time of the novel’s publication, McCullers displays amazing depth of perception.
All of the characters, in fact, are believable and intriguing. This is a prime example of Southern Gothic, which means that life in this novel’s world is fairly dark and dreary; as in Southern Gothic fiction in general, it may seem that a few too many tragedies befall the characters in the course of the novel, but these are narrated with a stark beauty that makes reading about them worthwhile. This is the third time I’ve read this book. I find the novel as a whole deeply moving, and let’s just say that I’m not much of a fan of things Southern in general.
But here’s a warning: what you want to happen, here and in Southern Gothic in general, is very unlikely to be what ends up happening, and the novel may just leave you with a feeling of deep despair.
This work has has earned praise from such greats as Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, and Gore Vidal. The above cautions aside, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Washington Square by Henry James
I’ve read most of James before and generally liked it, but somehow, this one had slipped past me, so I decided to tackle it at last.
Overall, I’d have to say that a few of James’s other novellas and novels, such as Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, do appeal to those who ordinarily don’t like James’s work or the novel of manners in general. But with this one, if you hated The Golden Bowl or The Portrait of a Lady, you are likely to despise it as well (and believe me, I know a lot of people absolutely despise these texts). Now if you like James and the novel of manners in general, or if you haven’t yet been exposed to one or the other and are curious, I’d highly recommend this work.
In the novel, a rather plain young woman with a massive inheritance coming is approaching the age at which, if she has not married, she will be considered a “spinster.” Enter Townsend, a suitor who is chiefly interested in her money, yet whom she decides to marry, a plan to which her father strongly objects.
That’s just the beginning, but I fear I’d spoil the novel if I revealed the last two turns of plot.
James, in my opinion, consistently peoples his works with complex and compelling characters. Here, the most intriguing and well-constructed character is Catherine, the protagonist. Early in the novel, James explores the roots of her shyness, extravagent taste in clothing, and place in society as a “plain” young woman. He then explores in detail the interactions among Catherine, her father, and her suitor. Over the course of the novel, we see Catherine mature in her practicality, assertiveness, and independence.
Since we’re talking about James, it goes without saying that the prose consists of a brilliant mix of periodic and cumulative sentences. For the greatest clarity and impact, I’d suggest reading aloud.
In case you’re still not sure whether this is the work with which you, the curious about James and the novel of manners who have no experience with either, want to begin, I will close by pointing out that this one is shorter than many novels in that genre, whether by James or by other authors.