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The Heart of Rachael

February 1, 2011

The Heart of Rachael is a 1916 bestseller by Kathleen Thompson Norris, and the best word I can think of to describe it is ‘involved.’ I had a whole synopsis of the plot written out, but it was kind of dull without all the semi-coherent insights into people’s characters interspersed with the exposition. So, let’s see how radically I can simplify it.

Rachael Fairfax, age 21, marries Clarence Breckenridge, a divorcé with a young daughter. Their marriage turns out very badly, mostly because Clarence doesn’t really care about anyone but his daughter Carol, commonly known as Billy. Also, Clarence is an alcoholic. Seven years into the marriage, Rachael decides she can’t stand it anymore and divorces him. She spends the summer becoming a better person, or something, and at the end of it she marries Dr. Warren Gregory, who is very much in love with her, because she has realized that she’s also very much in love with him.

Things go pretty well for them, but, although everyone is pretty much agreed that Rachael’s divorce was as justified as any divorce ever, she’s still really sensitive about it. Especially when, soon after Rachael and Warren are married, Billy runs off to marry another alcoholic divorcé, and Clarence kills himself. No one else seems to be bothered about this as much as Rachael is.

Time passes. Rachael and Warren have two kids, Jim and Derry, and Rachael withdraws herself as much as she can from society and spends most of her time at their house in one of the less fashionable parts of Long Island. Warren, on the other hand, seems to have less and less time for Rachael and the boys. Then Magsie Clay, a young woman who both Warren and Rachael have known for a long time, arrives from Europe and decides to become an actress. Rachael notices and is dismayed by Warren’s interest in Magsie, but she’s not certain of anything until she sees them having lunch together one day and they’re gazing into each others’ eyes and whatnot.

Rachael doesn’t think they’re actually sleeping together, because, while Warren accepts no one’s judgment but his own, he’s naturally virtuous — no, seriously, there’s this lengthy explanation of how his complete faith in his own opinion would cause a lot more problems if he didn’t only want to do good things most of the time — and wouldn’t be able to justify a full-fledged affair to himself. Not that that stops him from buying Magsie fur coats, going out to lunch with her every day, and backing her Broadway debut. Rachael doesn’t say anything to Warren, because she knows he’ll just get all self-righteous, so things don’t come to a head until Magsie shows up to see Rachael one day and is like, “So, your husband and I are in love, and you should divorce him so he and I can be together.” Rachael pretty much has her mouth hanging open after that, which gives Magsie time to add that, since Rachael has the kids to occupy her time, this shouldn’t be much of a hardship for her. And also that Rachael has already been divorced once, so this shouldn’t really be a big deal for her anyway. Magsie, as you might imagine, isn’t a very sympathetic character.

Rachael knows that Magsie is only as ridiculous as she is because she’s young and her pre-frontal cortex hasn’t finished myelinating, but she’s also still very sensitive on the subject of divorce. She feels that the fact that she was able to get a divorce when she wanted one means she can’t deny Warren his. So she eventually confronts him, and after he has, as expected, gotten all self-righteous, she takes the kids to Long Island and sends word that Warren is free to start divorce proceedings whenever he wants. Warren is a little taken aback by all this. He had never even considered leaving Rachael; he’s just a thoughtless ass, and he doesn’t understand why he should be punished for that.

Things sort themselves out, to a point, which is to say that Warren escapes from New York and Magsie finds someone equally rich, more willing, and also maybe terminally ill to marry. On his return, Rachael still won’t forgive Warren, so he spends a lot of time thinking about what an ass he is, working extra shifts at the hospital, and, apparently, wasting away. Clearly something external is needed to bring them together, and it arrives in the form of Derry with his face smashed in and blood bubbling from his mouth, which is as surprising a precursor to a happy ending as I’ve ever come across.

Other words I’d use to describe The Heart of Rachel — besides ‘involved’ — include ‘patchy’ and ‘ridiculous.’ But I have to say that I wasn’t laughing while I was reading it.

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6 comments

  1. I love Kathleen Norris books. This one doesn’t sound at all familiar so I’d better start reading!


    • As far as I can tell, this was one of her most popular books. The other one I keep hearing about is The Rich Mrs. Burgoyne. Which ones have you read?


      • Sisters, The Story of Julia Page, well most of the ones available on Project Gutenberg, which is why I’m surprised Rachael doesn’t sound familiar. I think the one that impressed me the most was Martie, the Unconquered. It should have been very depressing (nice Catholic girl marries absolute loser-man) but it wasn’t.


        • It’s hard to say having only read one of her books, but I suspect that a lot of what Norris wrote should have been depressing but wasn’t.


  2. Thank-you so much for a very entertaining ‘simplification’ of The Heart of Rachael. After getting to page 71 and wondering if I wanted to carry on reading I found your blog. You have solved my dilemma nicely by satisfying my curiosity. I particularly enjoyed your writing style and treatment of these vacuous people, none of whom would I want to spend any time with if their paths crossed mine. :-)


    • You’re welcome! I think, on the whole, I’m glad I read The Heart of Rachael, but I guess I do sometimes read things so others don’t have to. Anyway, I hope you stick around.



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