The Fifth Wheel

July 8, 2011

Hello, all. Since I last posted, I’ve moved and started a new job. Things have been, as you might expect, a bit crazy, and I don’t really know what my posting schedule is going to look like going forward. But I’ve got several posts in the pipeline, a pretty exciting TBR list, and I’ve bought a few really entertaining-looking books. And I’m almost as enthusiastic about Olive Higgins Prouty as I was at the beginning of June.

One of the things I liked about Bobbie, General Manager was that each of the Vars siblings had their own divergent  paths. They were recognizably a family, but they were also recognizably individuals. The bits of their stories that we saw tended to underline how much of what went on with Bobbie/Lucy passed under everyone else’s radar, which implied that the opposite was happening as well.

That’s confirmed in The Fifth Wheel. Of all the non-Lucy siblings, we got the most of Ruth’s story, and Bobbie ended with her engagement to Lucy’s professor friend, Bob Jennings. The Fifth Wheel shows us how little of Ruth’s story that actually was. And, perhaps, just how much of a misfit a seemingly well-adjusted person can be.

Ruth was the one who adapted most easily to the changes that came when Alec married Edith Campbell, and being pretty, fashionable, and very, very smart, she’s a success socially. And when she meets Breck Sewall, mildly distasteful heir to a large fortune,  she knows exactly how to play him. But Breck’s mother disapproves, and Ruth values her self-respect more than Breck’s money, and so she ends the engagement instead of eloping with him– a plan of which Breck and Edith are both in favor. In the face of Edith’s disapproval, she runs away to Lucy and Will’s house, where she meets and falls in love with Bob Jennings.

All this is going over old ground, but we learn a lot more about Ruth in the process. And from her  first meeting with Bob, it’s clear that things aren’t quite as perfect as they appear, and the two of them aren’t going to be able to proceed directly to a happy ending. And they don’t. After a fight with her family that was one of my favorite parts of the books (short version: they’ve been lying to her for years, and they don’t understand why she’s so upset about that) Ruth moves to New York and learns to make a living, with the help of none other than Mrs. F. Rockridge Sewall, Breck’s disapproving mother. It’s a lot of fun to see her win over Mrs. Sewall, make friends with various working women, and march in a parade with other suffragists, and it’s even more fun to see support for women’s suffrage go mainstream, through the lens of Ruth’s fairly conservative family members.

I loved the relationship between Ruth and Mrs. Sewall, with all of its ups and downs, and I loved that it comes to be the most important relationship Ruth has with anyone. There was so much more going on between them than between Ruth and either of her suitors, so I felt like the plot required an ending that included Mrs. Sewall. And it sort of did, but it also came int he traditional, wedding-on-the-horizon form, and not only was that not really needed here, it didn’t entirely make sense. It felt tacked on. I don’t know that I really believe in Ruth’s happy ending, and that makes me sad.

It’s not so much that I wanted a more forward-thinking conclusion — although that would have been cool — as that I didn’t find Ruth’s actions toward the end as convincing as I found the rest of the book. Ruth doesn’t appear as much in person in the last section — it’s narrated by Lucy — so maybe that’s part of it, but I also wonder if maybe Olive Higgins Prouty wasn’t altogether convinced either.


  1. Duly downloaded! I’m looking forward to reading both Bobbie and Fifth Wheel–I really like Olive Higgins Prouty, based on “Now, Voyager”. And speaking of which, I just found out that there are two other stories about the Vale family! “Lisa Vale”, and “Home Port”. Will have to search and spend if I want them, though–they don’t appear to be readily available, and certainly not free.

    • I really want to read Now, Voyager, but I can’t find it as an ebook and I haven’t come across a physical copy. I suppose I should just order it , because I’ve heard nothing but good things.

  2. Thanks for posting even though you must be tremendously busy, Melody. You’ve rekindled my interest in Olive Higgins Prouty and I will certainly read this one.

    Mel, go to Internet Archive and you will find several of Prouty’s books that you can check out through Open Library for 14 days. It is free to get an account and you can download it in PDF or EPUB or read it online.

    • No need to thank me–you have no idea how good it feels to get back to posting!

      Which Prouty books have you read? Any recommendations?

      • I have read Now, Voyager (one of the very few “dead tree” books I still own) and started Lisa Vale but I’m thinking I should reread NV first or at least see which was written first. I also read Bobbie, General Manager at your recommendation. I plan to read all of the ones available through Open Library (if I could just get over my Kathleen Norris kick since I discovered Open Library has so many of her books).

        • I’ve just ordered a copy of Now, Voyager — I couldn’t resist anymore.

          There’s an interesting website about all of Prouty’s novels dealing with the Vale family here. There are more books than I thought.

          • Okay, now you’ve inspired me to go back to Lisa Vale before rereading Now Voyager.

            • Why Lisa Vale and not The White Fawn?

              • Our library doesn’t have it and I don’t see it on Internet Archives/ Open Library and my budget doesn’t run to buying a copy from Amazon. If you do a review of it, I’ll probably end up doing an interlibrary loan for it (if you give it a good review, that is).

                • Oh well.

  3. Prouty was a relative of the stepmother of baseball writer and New Yorker editor Roger Angell (who’s the stepson of E. B. White). He talks about her in _Let Me Finish_ (2007).

    • Cool. She seems to have been a really interesting person, both from her books and the bits and pieces I’ve read about her.

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