Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Two's Company (1951)

Two's Company

Betty Cavanna, il. Edward J. Smith

1951, The Westminster Press

Along the flat, straight road to Williamsburg the slender branches of Scotch broom were strung with flowers, but Claire Farrell, driving her new convertible slightly faster than the speed limit, saw only a blur of yellow.

18-year-old New Yorker Claire Farrell chases her winter boyfriend, actor Whit Bowden, south for the summer. He's appearing in a summer theatre near Williamsburg, and Claire has hastily invited herself to stay with her grandparents, who live in the town. Also living in their old Virginia home is summer boarder Philip Young, an architect working on the restoration, who Claire understandably dislikes from the moment he virtually carjacks her on the road to town. Over the course of the summer, Claire learns to slow down and appreciate more than her beautiful boyfriend.

Claire, a headstrong and somewhat bullying personality, isn't exactly appealing, but her struggles make her sympathetic. Her patrician old grandfather's opinion puts the reader firmly on her side.

"She's selfish," Claire's grandfather's heavy voice boomed. "Takes after me, takes after Gregory. The Farrells are all selfish. They want what they want when they want it. But it isn't becoming in a woman. She ought to be taught."

The other women in the book are, basically, women who have learned to appear unselfish. Grandmother, after a lifetime in Virginia, still retires to her bedroom to nap with a hanky over her face when it's hot - selfish, posing as delicate. Aunt Rosemary is sweet and quiet and retiring - and manages to attract and land a famous, wealthy movie director by book's end. Lida Belle, the Southern vixen and rival for Whit's affections, purrs like a kitten and bravely - if pointlessly - neglects to ask for assistance when she's hurt in a car accident.

Claire's a very strong, real character, unlike most of the others in the book, who tend to serve only as tests for the heroine. Claire draws enormous strength from her surroundings - her smart convertible, her good clothes, her own physical beauty - and is deflated when deprived of any of them. She consciously carries her own story around with her - Sophisticated New Yorker - and is very unhappy when anything disturbs her sense of that story. She's very realistic, if not always very pleasant.

But to chug out the Jamestown Road in Philip's decrepit automobile destroyed something of the effect she had planned. She couldn't conjure up the feeling which usually sustained her - that she was a sophisicated young New Yorker down here on holiday. For all anyone could tell she might be just another Williamsburg girl out with her beau. The convertible had been desirable. Without it, Claire felt uncomfortable and even chagrined.

As usual, Cavanna's sense of place is strong. She paints a vivid portrait of a southern summer before air-conditioning:

All over the house blinds were drawn against the heat, which nevertheless lay like a blanket over each and every room, smothering the house as it did the town.

And she evokes a sense of the old Colonial village at the heart of Williamsburg, an atmosphere of brick sidewalks shaded by old trees that lies at the heart of many East Coast towns and cities.

Pulling the car off the road to a stretch of grass which bordered the worn brick sidewalk, Claire parked close to the gnarled paper mulberry which was one of her earliest recollections of Williamsburg. The mimosa and the paper mulberry - these two - spelled the house off Prince George Street to her. They had always stood sentinel in her mind to a quaint, out-of-this-world existence which brushed her life only briefly at irregular intervals.


Apart from the gender issues and pre-central air era mentioned above, there is a black maid/cook given the standard servant treatment, and a fairly scary car accident in which it is all too obvious that this is an era before seat belts.

Claire realized that her head had hit the windshield with a thud, but for the first few instants she was too dazed to feel anything but relief that none of the three of them had been thrown completely out.


William & Mary Lake Matoaka Amphitheatr

Colonial Williamsburg