KSeptember 8, 2010
People who have been reading this blog for a while can probably tell what my favorite things are: secret insane wives, ridiculously melodramatic situations written well, fictional famous people, rounded and sympathetic secondary characters, spontaneous human combustion, etc.
At this point, I believe Mary Roberts Rinehart can do pretty much anything. In the past week, I have read works by her including humorous short stories, serious short stories, a mystery novel, a funny novel, and a serious novel, and they were all thoroughly enjoyable.
K was the serious novel. It does not include spontaneous human combustion.
The book gets it’s name from the central character — he goes by K. Le Moyne, and it’s obvious from the first that it’s an assumed name, but he can’t think of any first names he likes that begin with K, so everyone just calls him by the initial — but really it’s about the Street, a lower middle class neighborhood where most of the characters live.
Sidney Page lives in a house on the Street with her invalidish mother, Anna, and Anna’s spinster sister Harriet Kennedy. The book begins when they take in K. as a lodger. Soon after, Harriet moves out and becomes a fashionable dressmaker. Then Sidney decides to become a nurse, and leaves the house in K.’s care while she takes up residence at the hospital.
Other occupants of the street include:
- Joe Drummond. He’s in love with Sidney and doesn’t react well when she decides she’d rather become a trained nurse than marry him. He, um, shoots someone.
- Mrs. McKee, who serves meals to other peoples’ lodgers (including K.) and eventually marries a deaf and dumb book agent.
- Tillie, Mrs. McKee’s waitress. She’s where the secret insane wife comes in: her gentleman friend, Mr. Schwitter, has one. He’s not a bad guy, really, and he’s told Tillie all about the wife. She eventually agrees to fake-marry him, which seems alternately like a good choice and a bad one.
- Christine Lorenz, a friend of Sidney’s who marries a man named Palmer Howe, who turns out to be kind of an ass. The move into the first floor apartment in Sidney’s house, and Christine and K. become close friends, while Palmer takes up with his former mistress and crashes his car.
- Drs. Ed and Max Wilson — Ed is the elder brother, a GP, who has sacrificed a lot to give Max every possible advantage, and Max is the younger brother who isn’t quite worth it. I mean, he’s a brilliant surgeon and all, but he’s the kind of guy who pursues a lot of women without giving any thought to what kind of effect that will have on them. And he’s devastatingly attractive, and there are rules about fraternization between doctors and nurses. He likes Sidney, and she likes him.
- The Rosenfelds, who represent the lower end of the class spectrum. Mrs. Rosenfeld takes in ironing, or something. Johnny is Palmer Howes’ chauffeur, and when Palmer overturns his car, Johnny is the one who ends up in the hospital. Mr. Rosenfeld is a deadbeat, and K. helps the rest of the family send him to the poorhouse, which is apparently a good thing.
- Reginald, a squirrel.
The only significant character who doesn’t live on the Street is Carlotta Harrison, who is many things: half-Spanish, Dr. Max’s lover, a trainee nurse, a person with knowledge of K.’s past, and moderately evil. She doesn’t like Sidney very much.
So, stuff happens. Lots of stuff. The shooting, the car crash, Tillie’s bastard child, the bit where Carlotta Harrison switches the labels on a couple of medicine bottles so that Sidney will give Johnny Rosenfeld the wrong medicine, the slightly anticlimactic revelation of K.’s true identity, etc. It’s kind of ridiculous, but only when you step back and say, “So, I’m in the middle of this book, and this guy Joe Drummond has just shot Dr. Max Wilson because he’s in love with Dr. Max’s fiancee, and now K., everyone’s favorite mysterious stranger, has gone to the roadhouse where his friend Tillie is living in sin with Mr. Schwitter (and where the shooting occurred) so that he can smuggle Joe away to Cuba. Oh, and he’s also in love with Dr. Max’s fiancee.”
So, uh, two things: first, that doesn’t fully describe the complexity of the situation; and second, it doesn’t seem that crazy when you’re reading it. Apparently Rinehart’s serious novels weren’t liked by critics, but did very well with the general public, and it’s easy to see why. The events of K are, honestly, kind of silly, but the characters are likable and sympathetic. And, if you read K and find yourself wondering toward the end, as I did, if anything good is ever going to happen to anyone, it will be because you’re invested, and you hope it will.