The Trumpeter SwanDecember 6, 2010
The more I read by Temple Bailey, the more unsure I am about how I feel about her books. Judy was delightful. Glory of Youth had its moments, but mostly I found it kind of irritating. The Trumpeter Swan is never irritating, exactly, but it’s definitely never delightful, either.
It’s one of those post-WWI novels, where every young man in sight has gone and been heroic overseas, and now they’re home and they don’t know what to do with themselves. And The Trumpeter Swan is a lot more explicit about that theme than a lot of books are, but underneath all of the complaining about how unappreciated the returning soldiers are, there’s not a lot going on. I mean, it’s theoretically a WWI novel, but it’s actually one of those books where an assortment of young people get paired off.
The main young people, I suppose, are Randy Paine and Becky Bannister. They belong to neighboring aristocratic Virginian families, and, predictably, Randy has always been in love with Becky. But he’s poor — he returns home after the war to find that his mother has turned their home into a boarding house — and she’s rich — semi-secretly an heiress, actually — so he doesn’t think he can tell her. Meanwhile, there’s George Dalton, rich, handsome, dissolute, and probably not quite as excitingly dangerous as he’s meant to be. He doesn’t know that Becky’s rich, although, to be fair, his intentions to trifle with her affections probably wouldn’t be affected if he did. Anyway, because this is kind of a predictable book, he gets in over his head and actually falls in love with Becky, although not until she’s realized that he’s kind of an ass. There are a couple of nice bits when he finds out how wealthy she is and is sort of humiliated, but there should be more.
Meanwhile, Randy finds himself a nice job selling cars, and, because otherwise this book would not be able to maintain pretensions to being a Significant Novel about soldiers returning from the war, he decides that he also wants to write a Significant Novel about soldiers returning from the war. This is entertaining because a) it’s fun to try and figure out how similar the novels he’s writing is to the one he’s in (with which it shares a title), and b) his attitude is so casual, all, “yeah, I never actually tried to write before, but I’ve always wanted to, and I’m pretty sure I can.” And then of course the first thing he writes is amazing, and he’s lionized by the entire New York publishing industry.
Randy and Becky are fine, I suppose. Of the three eventual couples, they aren’t the least interesting, anyway; that honor goes to Mary Flippin and her secret husband, who we’re eventually completely unsurprised to be told is Becky’s cousin Truxton Beaufort.
Madge MacVeigh and Major Mark Prime aren’t terribly interesting as a couple either, but Madge is pretty interesting as a character, so they get points for that. Madge is George Dalton’s sometime girlfriend, and, like him, she’s rich and indolent. Unlike him, she longs for the simple life, although no one believes her when she says so, and it’s hard to blame them, because she tans her skin to match her hair and always dresses in mauve. She manages to pull off being artificial and forthright at the same time, which I found to be pretty impressive.
Madge is one of only three characters in this slightly overpopulated book that I ended up having any affection for. The other two are Kemp, Dalton’s valet — he’s a bit of a war hero, and he leaves Dalton for Major Prime because he wants to have an employer he respects — and Archibald Cope, an artist with some kind of heart disease who meets and falls in love with Becky late in the book. I like him mostly because he’s so endearingly tragic. I’m tempted to say I want to see more of them, especially Kemp — for some reason we’re denied the scene where he quits his job with Dalton — but I don’t trust Temple Bailey not to screw up any character who gets a reasonable amount of page time.
It probably sounds a little like I hate this book, but I don’t; I’m just kind of underwhelmed. And maybe a bit baffled by how Temple Bailey can make such enjoyable setups so boring.