It’s hard to believe summer is coming to an end. Soon, new fall books will be all we hear about. Before this excitement begins, here are two summer books — a novel and a biography — that should not be so quickly forgotten.
Regina Porter’s debut resists summation for its brilliant, intricate plotting. How Porter pulled this off in itself defies imagination, as she never misses a beat in tone, pacing, timing and character delineation following the lives of the Vincent, Christie, Parker, Camphor, Delancy and Applewood families through the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of this one. The dramatic center point of The Travelers is the intersection of their lives.
While the book begins by introducing us to James Samuel Vincent (a Manhattan lawyer) and his son Rufus (who becomes a James Joyce scholar), its true beginning is the following chapter, when a young Agnes Miller and her boyfriend Claude Johnson encounter the prejudicial hatred and violence of white police officers in Buckner County Georgia, 1966. The following chapter, taking place in 2009, is narrated by Beverly Christie, a nurse at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York taking care of James Samuel Vincent in the neurological intensive care unit. James is the father-in-law of Beverly’s older sister Claudia (black), who is married to Rufus (white). Beverly and Claudia are the daughters of Agnes (from the 1966 incident) and Eddie Christie. (Agnes does not marry Claude but names her first born after him.) Eddie Christie participates in the Vietnam War on an aircraft carrier where there is racial tension and finds solace in Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which he holds close the rest of his life and teaches to his daughters. Claudia becomes a Shakespeare scholar.
Your brain might feel twisted after reading the above paragraph, and that’s exactly how I felt at page 60 of The Travelers. I almost gave up on the novel for its situational complexity but instead drew a family tree connecting the characters. After that, with family tree at my side, I sailed through The Travelers and cannot recommend it enough. It’s a vivid, seductive story that, in its marvelous detail, celebrates the complicated and seemingly unremarkable puzzle pieces of modern family life with soul-filling satisfaction.
A bit of caution for those who love family sagas, such as Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a 2017 National Book Award finalist for fiction, or, say, The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, the bestseller about the Cleary family that captured readers 40 years prior in 1977: Porter doesn’t drop us into the interior lives of her characters, rather allows the sketch of them, their experiences and their actions, to illustrate her message and engage us.
Well, [Nancy Vincent] said, applying bright red lipstick to contrast the blue eye shadow, and climbing into a pink Cadillac that could hold half a dozen men: We move in circles in this life.
I’m fudging a little in my timing here — The Beneficiary by Janny Scott was released in April, but I received my review copy in June and so for me, it’s a summer book, and a memorable one. It has had the same lingering effect on me as Edmund De Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, De Waal’s investigation into his family’s history spanning the 19th and 20th centuries. I came away from both books thinking about the legacy of family fortune with deeper understanding.
Mere minutes after her father died at the age of 76 in a Pennsylvania hospital, Janny Scott’s cell phone rang. It was a reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer wanting to know the cause of death. On the one hand, there was a medical reason (liver failure, stated in The New York Times obituary). On the other, Janny Scott felt something else was at play, having to do with the deep, strangling roots of a life pre-determined by family fortune and heritage. Robert Montgomery Scott, scion of Philadelphia society, descendant of century-old railroad and investment banking money, went downhill fast, and his daughter wondered “how my father’s charmed life had arrived at such a perplexing end.”
He grew up in a 50-room mansion on Ardrossan, the family’s eight hundred acre estate on the Philadelphia Main Line purchased by Robert’s grandfather in the early 1900’s. Think Downton Abbey and Brideshead Revisited. Children through the generations married and built houses on the estate, as did Janny Scott’s parents. Her father grew up in the Ardrossan mansion cared for by governesses, went to Harvard and worked in the family’s law firm, then became special assistant to the U.S. ambassador in Britain. He achieved notable success as President of the Philadelphia Museum of Art by significantly raising attendance and endowment funding.
Janny Scott is a former New York Times reporter and author of the bestseller A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother. Six years after her father’s death, she rummaged through boxes filled with family history stacked on shelves in the ironing room of Ardrossan’s servants’ wing.
The truth is, I suffer from an almost promiscuous inquisitiveness. It’s an occupational hazard, I suppose. Though I can’t say whether the occupation or the inclination came first: Maybe newspapers were chicken and egg. In this instance, I had no idea, when I got started, where my digging might lead me.
The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of My Father offers a fascinating insider look into how inherited wealth and privilege can shape the lives of generations to come, for some successfully and for others not so much. It reads like a novel, but with a reporter’s eye for detail and skill in pulling together puzzle pieces. More so, after the last page, you can’t help but continue to wonder about the emotional effect great fortunes bring to bear on their families. When Janny Scott discovered her father’s diaries, his life unveiled just that.