The Top of the Morning is the next Juliet Wilbor Tompkins book on the slate, mostly because I didn’t find the title that appealing, and I like to save the best for last. Yes, Joanna Builds a Nest and Open House are probably the two most appealing titles. No, I don’t know why I did that.
Anyway, the title isn’t great, but I like the book a lot. It’s episodic, just short of making me wonder whether it was originally published as short stories. And I haven’t tried to find out, but I’d guess it wasn’t.
The book follows a close-knit group of writers and artists who refer to themselves as “Us” and manage to stay just on the right side of the adorable/cloying divide. There’s Charlotte, an artist in her 30s with a teenage son. She’s very much the mother of the group, and not only because she is one. Paul is a sculptor, and he’s almost too perfect. He’s talented and wise and everyone loves him. Lanse and Evelyn are a pair, but it’s not clear whether they’re an item. They’re both from wealthy, upper class families. Lanse writes plays, and Evelyn is, I suppose, his muse. And then there’s Donna and Lorimer, who are sort of…Carolyn Wells, roughly, and maybe Oliver Herford or Gelett Burgess. Donna writes poems and humorous verse and children’s stories and stuff for magazines, and Lorrimer Ffloyd is a caricaturist. They’re best friends and they may or may not be in love with each other. Charlotte’s son Cameron, with his talent for being an appreciative audience, rounds out the group.
Different chapters cover their different struggles — Lanse’s fight with his father over his career, Donna and Lorrimer’s difficulties dealing with their respective moderate amounts of fame, Paul’s uncertainty about how to fulfill his potential. Most of the chapters left me wanting to stay with their central characters for a bit longer. Some of the chapters left me feeling kind of sad. The ending did both, partly because Tompkins wants to leave things open ended and provide closure at the same time. It doesn’t quite work, and in the last pages I got impatient with both the writer and the characters and decided that never mind, I don’t want to know.
Mostly I want to discount that last minute change of heart, though, because I enjoyed almost all of the book while I was reading it, and I do want to know more about stuff, especially Donna and Lorrimer and how the situation with Paul that I don’t want to spoil is going to pan out. And even in the context of Tompkins’ general focus on work, it’s fun to get these specifics of studio life and relationships between writers and magazines and things like that. Tompkins never names someone’s profession and leaves it at that; you get a pretty clear idea of how everyone’s income breaks down. I wonder if this book is a little more autobiographical than most of Tompkins’ work — it’s hard to find out much about her, but she seems to have been part of a clique that included Burgess, author Frank Norris, and artist Ernest Peixotto. And if it is autobiographical, then I want to hear a lot more about Donna. Or, who am I kidding? I want to know more about Donna either way.