“An Elegant Woman” by Martha McPhee

September 26th, 2020  |  Published in September 2020

The fall season brings a plethora of new novels, many of them good to excellent.  One of the year’s best to date is “An Elegant Woman”, by Martha McPhee, which didn’t get a lot of press play but is a superb family saga with brilliantly delineated characters and a superb underlying historical philosophy, to boot. Understanding that family dynamics intergenerationally tend to glorify, or to “puff up” family lore, McPhee briefly examines two points of view from Greek philosophers/historians from The Classical Age, presenting the “just the facts” perspective , versus the interpretive: history itself may thus be written in those (at least) two different ways, but the novel/fiction is inevitably a combination of the two, wherein interpretation weaves the threads of family history/lore into one cohesive narrative. McPhee has done that admirably, no, brilliantly, in this interpretation of her own family’s history.  The novel combines moments of real poverty, grand living on The East Coast, and a lot of mainly female characters  whose roles differ within the family over the generations, while they also repeat partly because of family myth and history.

Beginning the historical aspects of the novel with a failing marriage in small town Ohio, a very regal woman takes her two daughters (as her husband has invited his mistress into the family home to live) and decides to move out West to the very new town in Montana (might be Billings). The train ride alone from Ohio to Montana defines the character of this woman, Glenna Stewart; elegant, well mannered and beautifully dressed, she actually finds herself gambling with the affluent men on the train just to get the money to pay for the tickets from Chicago West for her two daughters, whom she leaves in the less affluent part of the train with a group of nuns (this section is both truly poignant and partly hilarious : the stakes, though, are very high). Glenna believes herself to be descended from the Stewart queens of England and also of the American writer James Fenimore Cooper, without a shard of evidence, but she wants her daughters to know they come from “good stock”. And that myth will run through four generations of the women in this family; it’s the defining myth of the family, and though it’s not true, it’s still sustaining (thus the differing views of history and of family lore). Glenna becomes an advocate for women’s rights in Montana, leaving her girls with a farming family for pay while she finds teaching jobs in one room schoolhouses (with housing) for herself all over  Montana; she’s not allowed to appear married or  a mother due to the prejudices against women at that time and place. When the girls are older, she’ll put them into an apartment; the older daughter, then named Tommy, learns to fish and trap and cook and care for the younger daughter, Katherine, who’s the beauty, and who gets to go to high school. Watching Tommy care for her younger sister with no mother in evidence is moving and shocking and fascinating; Katherine wants to go to Hollywood after high school. Tommy has other plans, and uses Katherine’s high school diploma to land herself into nursing school in New York City (the reader begins to see here how Tommy, now Katherine, is much like their mother Glenna).

Tommy-now-Katherine makes a grand match of a marriage, which includes a house in Maine on the water; a wonderful story within the story has this woman serving as a private duty nurse to an extremely rich family on  a week’s outing to their winter house in The Adirondacks, press and all; this story becomes a major piece of family lore for the next generation of the women in this story.  Some of the women in the fourth generation are less interested in their history, others entirely so (I suspect McPhee may be the young granddaughter making a go of this story, connecting the threads, fact and fiction, into one coherent narrative).  The original Katherine has a bad life in Hollywood, having met and married a cop on the boat to Los Angeles….and so it goes, but as we near the ending of this gorgeous and riveting novel, and the  children/grandchildren of both original sisters return to Montana to see where Glenna lived and taught and died, you’ll find yourself truly moved by how the original stories indeed kept much of this family together; that the myths by which each family lives may be more important and powerful than whether they’re true or not.

McPhee’s writing is also spot on, tough when it needs to be, disarming at other times; there’s a scene where Tommy/Katherine takes her own daughter to meet the formidable Cuban beauty Dina Goodman, whose husband owned most of the famous NYC department store Bergdorf Goodman, for a fitting for her elaborate bridal dress, where all sorts of codes are woven into these women’s intuitions about who actually “fits” where in the social scheme of things: it’s just pitch perfect.  “The Elegant Woman” of the title is, of course, Glenna Stewart, but it could just as easily be Tommy/Katherine, who’s virtually her clone later in life. If you like richly delineated family sagas (for which I am often a sucker), try “An Elegant Woman” and you’re bound to think of your own family and the myths by which it’s also lived and continues to integrate generationally. This is a beautiful novel.

–Daniel Brown

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