Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Rage To Live - John O’Hara

Posts have been few and far between of late (and with a holiday looming that’s going to be a pattern) partly because of work hours which have given me little time for anything but sleep between shifts, partly because of the diligent revision I was engaged in, and partly because the last book I read was a monster boasting 713 closely printed pages between its now sadly battered covers.

It was via Caustic Cover Critic that I first came across O’Hara (a classic case of successfully judging a book by its cover) and it was there that I saw that Vintage were releasing two more titles – ‘A Rage to Live’ and a collection of short stories. I still don’t know very much about O’Hara but was really quite excited about the chance to read more of his work. The first thing that struck me about ‘A Rage to Live’ is how long it was. Both the earlier novels (‘Appointment in Samara’, and ‘Butterfield 8’) are short and pack a lot in, ‘A Rage to Live’ is long and wordy with it. It reminded me of ‘Peyton Place’ which is not an allusion I Imagine O’Hara would have cared for, but is basically complimentary in my mind.

A Rage to Live’ tells the story of Grace Caldwell, she’s born into the elite of Fort Penn society, is in fact the only daughter of the only family that really matters and from a young age goes pretty much her own way, showing in the process a precocious sexuality. Mrs Caldwell takes care to get her daughter married as soon as she realises what’s afoot and before a real scandal can brew. The man chosen for the role of consort is Sidney Tate an outsider from New York. Fort Penn is deep in Pennsylvania (and seems to be a predominantly German town) and they’re suspicious of strangers there, a condition of Grace and Sidney’s marriage is that they stay on the family farm which Grace receives as a wedding present and has no desire to leave.

Grace loves Sidney but they marry very young and she’s used to taking what she wants with no conception of denying her passions. When temptation comes her way years of happy marriage and the fate of three children are as nothing to the impulse of the moment, Grace gives in, and the consequences are what you might expect from a small town where nothing stays a secret. Grace pays for her indiscretion with her marriage, its 1917 and Sidney plans to go off to war never to return. Sidney has placed his wife on far too high a pedestal to forgive her this kind of mistake. Fate intervenes (although the result is the same) and Grace is left a widow which is when things start to become complicated for her. She may be the queen of local society but she’s also a woman with a past and both of these things mean she’s under constant scrutiny.

O’Hara is sympathetic to Grace portraying her need for sex as something natural and admirable. He certainly points out the double standards at play between what his male characters can get away with (they are for the most part seemingly never out of brothels) and what Grace can do. Her transgressions are quite mild really, what’s shocking is that she does what she does motivated mostly by lust – it’s very masculine.

When scandal comes again, which it inevitably does, Grace is as good as innocent but it doesn’t matter, her past is all that counts and that’s that. A lot of other things happen, this is a proper saga with a long character list and despite the 700+ pages I was finished far too soon. It’s big and messy but utterly compelling. ‘Appointment in Samara’ is a better book by far, but this one is more fun. It was apparently a huge best seller back in 1949 and I can see why – and this is what brings me back to ‘Peyton Place’. There is a similar sense of scale, a similar sprinkling of salacious detail, and underneath it all a subversive message about our accepted moral values. It’s a great book, not perfect, but splendid.


  1. I understand about Peyton Place being a compliment. Sounds wonderful, thanks for the review. ARTL is on my bookshelf at home; I wish I had it with me now. I love the cover on your copy, although mine is kind of nice...a young woman with sunglasses and expressionless.

  2. ARTL is a grand old read, perfect summer stuff, I know the copy you mean and I think it looks great too. It's different to Peyton Place but I do think if you like one the chances are you'll like the other

  3. I really enjoyed BUtterfield 8 so am planning to read more novels by O'Hara. But I think I'll try Appointment to Samara first before I give this one a go. I find his portrayal of women very interesting. Lovely review.

  4. Chasingbawa - Appointment in Samara is excellent - surprising, all sorts of things. I can't enthuse enough:)

  5. It is an excellent novel, and actually since it came out in 1949 and "Peyton Place" came out in 1956 it must be said that "Peyton" resembles "Rage," not the other way the way, the original cover, a wraparound painting of the novel's opening gala, is unquestionably one of the great covers in American literature, truly giving the potential reader a taste of what's inside, which is what covers are supposed to do.

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