Link to Club Info
You’ve probably heard of Olive Higgins Prouty. Or at least of Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager, two movies that unabashedly qualify as four-hankie weepers. (I mean that in a good way. I enjoy four-hankie weepers.)
Prouty, born in 1882, flourished as a writer in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1931 she wrote The White Fawn, the first of her five-book series about the Vales of Boston. The series chiefly centres on Lisa Vale, who married into the rich and powerful family, and her children. The third book, about Charlotte Vale and her toxic relationship with her mother, the overpowering matriarch of the family, is best-known as a 1942 movie starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.
Far less known are the other four books, of which the final story (and Prouty’s final novel) is Fabia, 1951.
Fabia, in her early thirties at the start of the book, is the oldest of Lisa’s children. She’s already had her tormented story told in the first two books: how she fell in love with an Irish-American doctor from the wrong side of the tracks, and how the family (i.e., the hidebound Grandmother Vale and Fabia’s father Rupert) forced them apart.
Fabia, Spanish edition 1955
Now, in early December 1941, she hasn’t seen or contacted Doctor Dan Regan for 12 years. She no longer loves him. Because for the past seven years (yes, seven years) she’s been in love with Oliver Baird, another doctor, though this time from the right side of the tracks. Too bad he’s 25 years her senior, and is married with two daughters.
At the start of the novel, she is sitting her her rather nice brownstone apartment in New York, obsessing over whether or not Dr. B will call her at 2:00, as he said he might, if he could. Unfortunately, she obsesses a lot throughout this book. Over her fantasy life as Dr. Baird’s secret lover. Over their fantasy son, also named Oliver. Over taking a walk in the evenings so she can see the lights in his apartment. If the light is on in the library, she knows he’s sleeping on the cot there, instead of in the twin-bedded bedroom with his wife Irma. It’s their own arranged signal. They have lots of these, since they work at the same hospital. She’s head of the nursing staff there.
My copy – Houghton Mifflin, 1951
After Oliver has come and gone (yes, he did eventually call) Fabia visits her mother, Lisa Vale, now Mrs. “Barry” Firth, (because they did things that way then) who is in town for a few days, and they have a deep heart-to-heart, involving a full disclosure flashback of how Fabia’s romance began and how it’s gone on and where things stand today (pretty much as they stood seven years ago).
For seven years, this has been a perfectly chaste affair. Because of this half life Fabia is floating in, she has given up her social life, her family life and good job offers.
However, now Lisa knows and Lisa’s friend Renée Beauchamp knows. And so does Doctor Jaquith. (Both these people turned up in Now, Voyager. Dr J was that all-wise psychiatrist who helped Charlotte find her way, and Renée is the friend who gave Charlotte her cruise ticket and loaned her her name and her clothes, so she could make a splash on board ship.)
Sorry, I digress. After seven years of nothing changing, Fabia’s life gets stirred up, and everyone meets Oliver and his wife Irma. It gets complicated.
Irma, of course, is Awful. But Oliver is Noble and Faithful (in his way). Oliver’s marriage is nearly a repeat of Jerry’s from Now, Voyager. Essentially, he married her because he felt sorry for her, and if her left her now, she would suffer unbearably. And his adolescent daughters Couldn’t Take It. And then…. Oh dear, I would be spoiling things if I told you more, but it involves a Blessed Event.
Really, I just wanted to knock all their heads together.
Then, it being December 1941 and all, the US enters WWII, and Fabia takes her nursing skills into the Armed Forces. Where she meets an old friend. Hint: he’s a doctor.
To quote the jacket flap: Fabia’s final decision is unpredictable up to the last few pages.
I wish I could say this is a wonderful final act of the saga of the Vales of Boston. But as you might guess, I’m fairly lukewarm about this story. I haven’t read the first two in the series (and don’t feel any great need to).
I own a Dell Mapback copy of Now, Voyager, which I quite like, along with a hardcover, jacketed first edition of Home Port, the fourth book in the series.
I enjoyed Home Port, a lot, and will undoubtedly read that one again. Published in 1947, it doesn’t qualify for the 1951 Club. You can read a review of it here at Another Look Books, and it’s quite affordable at AbeBooks.
My copy of Fabia is apparently a first edition with a nearly intact dust jacket, which I found at the same book barn clearance sale as Home Port.
Availability: Well, I wouldn’t recommend it myself unless, as I did, you can pick it up for the price of a coffee. A number of copies can be found on AbeBooks, at asking prices ranging from 4.39 to 500.00 USD. Warning: nearly all of them are in French or Spanish.
To find out more about The Vales of Boston and All Things Prouty, check out this intriguing website.