bigotry, black-and-white characterization, Faith Sullivan, feminism, historical fiction, literary fiction, literature, Midwest, narrow-mindedness, P.G. Wodehouse, Sinclair Lewis, single motherhood, small-town mores, social prejudice, twentieth century
Review: Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse, by Faith Sullivan
Milkweed, 2015. 439 pp. $26
Had Sinclair Lewis believed in or owned the milk of human kindness, he might have written Main Street more like this novel. Main Street would have been a lesser book, bereft of its cynicism and merciless social edge. But that’s not a knock on Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse, which has its own pleasures, one of which is that Sullivan believes firmly in that precious milk, even as she describes a similar strain of small-mindedness.
When Nell Stillman’s husband dies, leaving her almost destitute with a baby son to care for, she’s not as bad off as she could be. The late Mr. Stillman was a selfish, insensitive brute, so she’s well rid of him, but it’s the early twentieth century, and as a widow in Harvester, Minnesota, she has few socially acceptable choices. Not only that, the town is blessed with many people who have nothing better to do than let her know when she’s made the wrong ones. But Nell has a gift for tolerating human frailties, which earns her friends and protectors. More importantly, the third-grade teacher is quitting her job, and Nell has a teaching certificate.
Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse has no plot to speak of, just an account of Nell’s experiences, told in bitty, episodic chapters. I dislike that approach, which seems superficial at times and geared toward a tag line, as if I were watching television instead of reading a book. But Sullivan makes it work reasonably well, and it’s easy to sympathize with Nell, who struggles to find solace despite many painful experiences. For one, she’s nearly fired because of what a young woman she hired to look after her child may or may not have done. For another, her son, Hillyard, known as Hilly, is aptly named for the life he must climb through; a more genial, caring, gentle boy you couldn’t find, but he’s meat for the town bullies, and Nell suffers with him.
You’ll notice that these are two good, kind people, the live-and-let-live type who readily draw others to them. All Nell’s friends are like that too, more tolerant than the average, and you can tell them right away, as if they were the ones wearing the white hats. That’s both a blessing and a curse to a novelist, I think. You want to read about these kind people, but they don’t always seem real. Nell, Hilly, and those who smile on them appear to have no flaws, whereas the bullies are, well, just bullies, irredeemable and inexplicably mean, deserving no fuller portrayal or explanation.
Sullivan shades this black-and-white picture to some extent by throwing plenty of sorrow at the good folk. But there’s a limit to how far that goes. I admit, Sullivan tells her story skillfully, but it’s not hard to guess what will happen. I like this novel for what it is, a commentary on Midwestern morals of the past century, but I kept wanting to see Nell betrayed by someone who normally shouldn’t have. Instead, she’s betrayed by just whom you’d expect. I wanted more scenes like the one in which Hilly receives a hero’s welcome returning from the Great War, and things go horribly awry because a friend of Nell’s overreaches. Sullivan creates a wrenching moment, a perfect capsule description of what’s wrong with Harvester. But true to form, the friend apologizes profusely, realizing exactly what she’s done, and nothing like that ever happens again.
The title comes from Nell’s love for literature, especially the social comedies of P. G. Wodehouse, whose titled eccentrics and British preoccupations are worlds away from small-town America. That’s why Nell adores these books; they lift her out of herself and banish her troubles for a while, and there’s no greater compliment than that. Nell even has imaginary conversations with Wodehouse, as she does with the people in her life who’ve died, and those talks comfort her as well.
Sullivan’s novel has This Would Be Great for Book Clubs written all over it, which is perhaps a little precious. But I can also see that readers could pick up Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse and be cheered by Nell’s indomitable spirit, despite her losses.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.