The Member of the Wedding ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Member of the Wedding ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In Carson McCullers’ wonderful, adolescent-angst novel, The Member of the Wedding, Frances “Frankie” Addams is a feisty twelve-year-old girl living in a small Southern town. Too smart for her own good, she is just on the verge of her teen years. Her mother died when she was born, so she just has her father, a preoccupied watch repairman at a jewelry store in town. The time is the 1940s, during World War II, but Frankie has other things on her mind besides war. Her young-adult brother, Jarvis, is marrying a girl named Janice in Winter Hill, a town a hundred miles away. Frankie longs to escape from her dreary, small-town life. She believes that Janice and Jarvis will take her with them after they are married and they will be a threesome. Everybody who knows how the world really works knows that Frankie is about to be seriously disillusioned.

In the absence of a mother, Frankie has Bereniece Sadie Brown to take care of her. Bereniece is an oft-married black lady who has known her share of grief in the world. Her favorite husband, Ludie Maxwell Freeman, died of pneumonia on a winter night, and since then she has been trying, without much success, to find someone to take his place. Bereniece is always kind to Frankie and tries hard to understand her and help her with her loneliness and insecurity.

John Henry West, Frankie’s brightly inquisitive, six-year-old cousin, lives in the neighborhood but is always at Frankie’s house. He eats most of his meals there and spends the night with Frankie a lot in her room, an “enclosed sleeping porch” above the kitchen. Frankie may not want to admit it, but John Henry is her best friend. She tells him to “go home” when she’s had enough of him.

The world is a frightening place for Frankie and we can see that, at age twelve, she has a lot of growing up to do. She has a near-date with a soldier who believes she is older than she is and is forced to hit him in the head with a water pitcher in his hotel room to discourage his advances. When she goes by bus to the wedding of Janice and Jarvis in Winter Hill with her father, Bereniece, and John Henry, she discovers just how disappointing the world—and life in general—can be.

The Member of the Wedding is a delightful novel to read, so beautifully written, by one of the most talented American writers of the twentieth century. It is evocative not only of time (the 1940s) and place (the American South) but also of childhood. What adult hasn’t experienced the terrors of growing up in an uncertain, frightening world? One of my favorite novels out of the many thousands I’ve read.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Reflections in a Golden Eye ~ A Capsule Book Review

Reflections in a Golden Eye ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Carson McCullers was an American writer who lived from 1917 to 1967. She published her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, when she was only in her early twenties. It was a literary sensation that established her as an important American writer and one of the most gifted writers of her generation. Her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, was published in 1941, when she was twenty-four. While it was not the critical and commercial success of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, it is still a fascinating and highly readable book.

Reflections in a Golden Eye is set at a sleepy peacetime army base in Georgia in, let us say, the late 1930s. The story, the plot, is centered around five characters: Leonora Penderton is the wife of an officer. She is free-spirited, rather course and vulgar, attractive and not very smart. She is married to Captain Weldon Penderton and it is not a happy marriage. He is bitter, withdrawn, suspicious, and a closeted homosexual. He and Leonora have separate bedrooms. Major Morris Langdon is much more temperamentally suited to Leonora Penderton than her husband is. He drinks to excess, is jovial, likes a good time, and is having an affair with Leonora. Major Langdon’s wife is Alison, a nervous, sickly, neurotic woman who despises her husband and depends a great deal on her feminine Filipino houseboy, Anacleto, to make life palatable for her. The fifth character is private Ellgee Williams; he is a country boy who doesn’t know much of the world before enlisting in the U.S. army. He has never been around women much, being raised by a woman-hating father, and becomes obsessed (silently and secretly) with Leonora when he glimpses her naked. He takes to breaking into her house at night and, without making a sound, stands in her bedroom and watches her sleep.

Private Williams tends the stables on the base and, since Captain Penderton rides almost every day, the two of them come into contact frequently. Captain Penderton develops an infatuation (love and same-sex attraction mixed in with an unreasoning hatred) for private Williams, not knowing or not caring that private Williams is infatuated with his wife, Leonora. Of course, private Williams is only vaguely aware (or not aware at all) of Captain Penderton’s sexual longing for him. It might be that he is too unsophisticated to know of those things or to understand, even if he does know.

Reflections in a Golden Eye moves along almost in the way of a Greek tragedy toward its inevitable tragic conclusion. It’s a simple story with clear-cut themes of lust, longing, and isolation. All the characters are flawed in some way, misfits in some fundamental way. Happiness and satisfaction are qualities that don’t exist in this world. It’s a world of superficial, self-indulgent people, destructive to themselves and to their world. Keep those before-dinner cocktails coming and also the after-dinner ones. We must keep drinking to give ourselves the impression we’re happy.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp