There are a number of "classics" sitting on my shelves to be read. This summer I picked up BUtterfield 8 and dove right in. I had almost no idea what to expect. I'd never seen the movie and hadn't really ever heard anything about the story. Reading the back cover gave a slight insight, but still left me wondering what to expect.
The book started out a little slow, but still very vivid. O'Hara writes with great description and passion and was able to make the scenes very alive and full. However, for the first few chapters, the book felt rather disjointed to me and I felt a little disoriented and confused. There were a ton of characters dropped in and I wasn't yet sure who was important and who was peripheral.
Looking back, I think the disorientation could be a deliberate stylistic choice. Our central characters are all caught up in a whirlwind of life's adventures filled with big hopes and dreams, but still just whipped around dizzyingly by real life interactions.
Pushing through the first few chapters, I found myself getting really attached to the characters. This is really a character driven novel and the characters are deep and engaging. It was a while before I even knew the name of the girl I was following around for the first few pages and I wasn't sure yet if I was supposed to be sympathetic to or disgusted by her situation, but I still felt compelled by her and wanted to know more. As Gloria Wandrous grew more and more alive and as I learned more of her back story and current situation, she began to feel truly real and I found myself sympathizing for her.
Many of the themes of the book dealt with Gloria's sexuality both in the present world and with the encounters of her youth. O'Hara isn't explicit/graphic with his sexual content, but I can see where even the allusions he presents could be controversial both then and now. Sexuality is often a taboo subject anyway. Add to that the molestation/rape of a young girl and the subject becomes all the more disputable.
O'Hara doesn't wholly portray Gloria as a victim, which would be a natural response. He does explore her psychology and reactions, but he also gives her an inner strength and drive. I really enjoyed the description of her conflicted moral judgments. She has a real desire to love and be loved, but she has a low sense of self worth because of her past that she feels she has to live up to.
In addition to the depth in Gloria's character, the book also expounds on the sexuality and behaviors of all the other characters.
Weston Ligget, the male love interest for Gloria, is a character with a lot of depth though it's harder to feel sympathetic towards him. I feel almost sorry for him in that he does seem like he genuinely wants to care for Gloria, but at the same time, I read his love as more of an infatuation based on the thrill of the chase and the excitement of the affair. He just sends off the creepy vibe through his pedophiliac/incestual behavior not to mention his infidelity and reckless abandon.
I really liked Eddie as Gloria's best friend. Part of me hoped that they would somehow get a romance going, but I knew early on that any chance of love between them was totally ill-fated.
I've spoken mostly about the characters and this really is a character driven novel. The characters are the life of the book. The plot itself felt a little thin. It was compelling only in the fact that I was attached to Gloria. The environment of New York and the speakeasies was meticulously created and felt very real and compelling. The dialog was fresh and real.
The themes and content, while somewhat controversial and dated to the ~20s/30s, were still strikingly relevant in our modern society. The 21st century club scene is obviously a little different than that of the speakeasies. The stresses and concerns of modern day 20-somethings and white-collar-30+s have become more technologically advanced, but the general worries are still very similar.
People want to be loved. They want to be accepted. They want to figure out who they are and how they fit into the world. They want to overcome the problems of their past and be able to take control of their future.
This novel has a lot of great themes to think on and wonderful characters to help open up the realities hiding under the pasted on smiles of society. I would have liked to have seen some better resolution or morale at the end of the story, but it still left something to think about. Probably my biggest complaint was the "200 pound gorilla in the room" that's alluded to on the back cover by telling us that O'Hara was inspired to write this book when he read a news article about an unknown girl found dead in the East River. With that in mind, I knew what was coming and new the book couldn't end well.
Still, I hoped for a little more enlightenment or for something more to come from the impending death. In that regard, the book left me somewhat disappointed...a bit of metafiction, placing me inside Gloria's own disappointment with the world.
Overall, it was a book worth reading. I enjoyed the reality of it, the depth of the characters and the interesting themes. The pacing was a bit slow and disjointed, especially early on, and the plot itself felt a bit contrived at moments. Still, I am glad I read it and will likely seek out more O'Hara to put on my shelf.
3.5 stars (out of 5)