The Strange WomanApril 30, 2013
Usually a novelization of a play retains a fair amount of the original structure. The author of the novel may add in new locations and stuff, but you can still tell that, say, one particular group of chapters used to be the second act and originally took place entirely on someone’s front porch, or that one lengthy bit of narration used to be a monologue, or something. The Strange Woman, adapted by Mary McNeil Fenollosa (writing as Sidney McCall) from a play by William Hurlbut, puzzled me because I couldn’t see the underlying structure of the play, and none of it seemed like it had come from a play — until more than halfway through the book, when John Hemingway returns from Paris with his fiancée. Or his sort of fiancée.
Now that I’ve read a couple of reviews of the play, though, everything makes sense. The last third or so of the book, the section full of unpleasant people and awkward situations that made me wonder why I had liked anyone or been invested in the book up to that point — that was the bulk of the play. The first half or so, in which John Hemingway goes to Paris and is desperately lonely until he meets and begins a relationship with American-born Inez de Pierrefond is apparently original to the book.
John is a nice but occasionally super depressed architect studying at the École des Beaux-Arts. Inez is from Louisiana, and is about as French as one can get while still being an American, and is technically a widow, although she left her horrible and possibly German husband before he died. They meet in a treehouse, which is kind of great. Their relationship is pretty interesting. There’s a lot of very trite bits, but John is pretty convincingly torn between his attraction for Inez and his morals. He’s also pretty convincingly a massive dork. And Inez is pretty awesome, and eventually wins him over to her way of thinking, including the idea that marriage is a prison.
That one, obviously, isn’t going to go over well in John’s hometown of Delphi, OH. And John’s transformation when they get back there makes sense, although it’s kind of disappointing. And I guess that’s how I feel about everything else that happens in Delphi, too. I keep wanting to say that everyone is out of character, but I can’t put my finger on any specific way in which that’s true. And it’s not terrible, but after the Paris section, which I was really enjoying, it’s disappointing.
Now that I know roughly what was in the play, I keep falling into the trap of thinking of the Delphi section as Hurlbut’s work and the Paris section as Fenollosa’s, which isn’t fair because Fenollosa wrote the whole book. Also, not having read the play, I don’t want to make assumptions. I guess I’ll have to try one of Fenollosa’s other books at some point, to see how she does on her own.