The Purple Heights, 2/2July 7, 2007
The second half of The Purple Heights is very different from the first. Chadwick Champneys sets out to find Anne Simms, commonly known as Nancy, and finds her working as a maid in the home of her mother’s stepsister. Nancy has red hair, freckles, and a bad temper.
Chadwick Champneys is not so happy, but he really feels responsible for Nancy, so he takes her to New York with him. Peter, meanwhile, is also on his way to New York, having left behind practically everything but Emma Campbell and her cat, Satan. He meets Nancy, marries her, and sails for Europe all in the course of a few hours. He’s really unfavorably impressed with her, and she doesn’t think much of his looks either.
Peter meets a lot of like-minded young artists in Paris, and his obvious talent gets him some important commissions. He also has an affair with a girl called Denise, who eventually wastes away and dies, as inconvenient first loves in novels are apt to do.
Meanwhile, Chadwick Champneys hires a woman to educate Anne. Anne hates her, but she does learn how to speak properly and stuff. Then Chadwick Champneys dies, and the Champneys lawyer, Jason Vandervelde, and his wife Marcia, become Anne’s guardians. Somehow angry, frustrated, contrary Anne becomes kind of cool and sophisticated and mysterious and very much sought-after, especially by Berkeley Hayden, who is also cool and sophisticated and knows a lot about art.
Eventually Anne gets the marriage annulled. She and Peter haven’t seen each other since they got married, and everyone knows their marriage is sort of a sham. She plans to marry Berkeley Hayden at some point, but isn’t quite ready. World War I starts, and Peter is fairly heroic, we’re told, and earns a few medals.
Now, in the cast of characters, Chadwick Champneys is listed as “the god in the machine.” Fair enough. But I think Jason Vandervelde has at least as good a right to the title. He has a lot of faith in his former employer’s plans, and he thinks Peter and Anne, who have both changed considerably since they last saw each other, would do well together. So he sends Anne, who feels like getting away from everyone for a bit, to a town he knows in Maine, and when Peter, who has just returned from Europe, also expresses a desire for rest, he sends him there too.
And then they fall in love at first sight. Or so they think. Afterwards, they discover that they’ve already been married to each other.
It’s kind of a dissatisfying ending to a dissatisfying second half of the book. I really liked Peter until he got to Paris, when the narration sort of distanced itself from him. And I never really had much of a sense of Anne in the first place. And the ending was ridiculous. I would much rather have seen them slowly get to know each other. The whole love-at-first-sight thing lacks credibility when they’ve, you know, seen each other before. It gives the impression that they fall in love with each other just because they’re better-looking now. And of course, people in novels do fall in love with pretty people generally, but usually there’s some kind of other excuse, unless the author is being cynical, which Oemler isn’t. It’s just — cute little Peter deserved to grow up into a person with better sense than that. I liked him better when he called Anne an ogress and went to Europe to escape her.