Marriage relationships are often the basis of Pearl S. Buck novels. These two books that I found recently at our local antique mall, 1941's Portrait of A Marriage (preceding by 35 years Nigel Nicholson's famous biography of the same name about his parents) and Buck's 1938 novel This Proud Heart, made me wonder about Buck's own marriage. To Wikipedia I went and found that her second marriage, her most successful marriage, was to her publisher with whom she shared many interests.
Both of these novels are about artists, the husband in one and the wife in the second. The spouses in both books were polar opposites from their artist spouses, examples of the old adage that opposites attract. Putting it simply, these two books could be thought of as cautionary tales about the importance of having something in common before committing to marriage, not that two young people are likely to consider that. But back to the books.
My copy of Portrait of A Marriage is beautiful. The dust jacket picture is of the type of Pennsylvania stone farmhouse that I so admire.
The house was made of fieldstone, brown and dull red and streaked with weathered gold...Over the porch a trumpet vine climbed in full leaf but not yet flowering.
The artist in William drew him to anything beautiful and the house set in the valley was beautiful.
The endpapers of the book reveal the second beautiful thing that the artist fell under the spell of, the farmer's beautiful daughter Ruth. (Endpapers of a book can sell a book to me, also deckled edges some old books have. A ribbon doesn't hurt either.)
William, educated and from a wealthy family, immediately wants to paint Ruth making bread in the kitchen that he finds much more charming than his own parents' that only the cook is ever in.
...a big stone-floored room, and in the middle of the outer end wall was a wide fireplace in which a cook stove had been put. Above were good oak beams, smoked to a dark brown...But the kitchen, he thought, as he entered it again, was beautiful.
Alas, despite the beauty of this book, I did not care for it. I did not even care for the beautiful Ruth. Actually, I didn't even care much for William. The marriage did last and I did too, finishing the book, something I normally no longer do if I'm not enjoying it.
But it is a Pearl S. Buck novel and I am an eternal fan, besides hoping that Ruth would grow and become more than the stubborn closed mind woman she is. To the last page that never happens.
Then I turned to the second Buck novel, This Proud Heart published in 1938. It has no dust jacket, no pretty endpapers, no pretty pictures. But oh my goodness, how I loved this book!
Susan marries Mark with one desire only, to make a perfect home for him.
She stopped one day when the morning was half over and looked around her living room. Everything was finished in this house. There was nothing more to do. The house looked back at her brightly, the windows clear, the floor shining, everything in its place. There was no room for anything more she could make. The last cushion, the last curtain was done, and one more would be too much. Her small linen closet was full of linen she had embroidered and hemstitched. Outside, the garden was tended and blooming with midsummer. Mark was to make the garden, but she had run out on sunny days and weeded and planted. Yesterday she had even mowed the lawn. But he was angry at her for that.
I say that everyday, don't you? All my work done by mid-morning and my house and garden perfect. Right.
While I enjoyed reading the book up to this point, loved all the domestic details, it was the rest of the book that was fascinating. What did this wife do when her homemaking duties failed to fulfill the artistic yearnings she had previously satisfied through amateur sculpting? She began to carve in marble and then to become one of the few sculptors who carves directly into stone with no drawing, no pattern, no small model made first.
With each marble block Susan lets the particular piece reveal itself to her chisel.
I loved the thorough job that the author did fleshing out this artist's career as a sculptor, the detail she went into about the actual sculpting.
I liked the wife in this book. I liked her dull husband even though they weren't suited at all. There wasn't a grand passion between them whereas the relationship between the painter and his country wife had a marriage that succeeded only because of the passion between them.
I'm not knocking passion in a marriage, far from it. Marriage is complicated enough with it,in real life and in fiction. Pearl S. Buck does it so well in her novels about her time period. She was, after all, both a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winner during her career.
Would her books sell today? Probably only to old fogies like me.
I shouldn't fail to mention that the author's own life, from beginning to end, was complicated as well as sometimes tragic.