Margaret Ayer Barnes – Years of Grace

In high school, I was the captain of my scholastic bowl team. This was an odd arrangement as I had the lowest grade point average of anyone on the team. We were an average team. We traveled around a lot, once going to a competition in Chicago where we got destroyed. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this activity. I bring this up because a very popular question to ask in High School Scholastic Bowl matches was the First lines or the Last lines of famous novels. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Famous Last Line from Fitzgerald. I don’t want my reaction to this book to be solely on the merits of its last line, but I give it to you here.

“When you looked at a child, Jane reflected solemnly, you could never believe that it would grow to disappoint you.” This line sums up this work perfectly. There are moments in this book that Drew and I have talked about that make this book stand out in my mind. Barnes captures the essence of womanhood as I understand it as a casual observer so precisely that it could vault this book into the annuls of history as the clearest communication of the interior life of moment in a male dominated society that you have ever read. I do not make this claim lightly, this book could stand next to Kate Chopin’s Awakening or anything by Virginia Wolf or Emily Dickenson at times. The rest of it is confused and arcane. Moments in this book Jane stands as a lonely hero trying to reconcile her wild beating heart with what she understands her role and duty to be. It is a perfect work in many ways, but she chooses the unpopular thing in fiction which is the resign herself to her duty and is rewarded by if a little stiff but a pleasant life and Barnes does well at times to justify it. I feel like I am writing myself into quicksand because this is a difficult place for a book to place itself. Jimmy is the authentic literary hero the gypsy lover who gets himself killed on the wrong side of the first World War, but he is not. He is a role character. He stands as Stephen’s foil, and a good one at that. If this doesn’t sound like the most emotionally complex novel ever written, I am not conveying it right. There is are ins and outs, trials and bequests. There is a genuine strain against the status quo in turn of the century Chicago. The characters of an innocent age attend the White City World’s Fair which is almost a footnote in this novel. The whole thing takes place before the stock market crash, and Stephen and his legacy are bankers which would probably be a terrible place to end, but all of this – all of this swirl of emotion and passion and confusion and longing does not justify this last line. This last line betrays everything Barnes wrote. Jane not only resigns (which could be admirable in some sense) but she meets her long lost childhood love and pities him, then in the ultimate disappointment for me as a reader is that she cannot get past her daughter’s exact same actions carried out in the end. She knows she cannot accept them because then they denigrate the decisions she has made in the opposite direction, nevertheless, I am not certain Barnes is writing that here because of the word solemnly. Jane with that word is divorced (no pun intended) from that emotional complex. Jane simply stands myopic to the halls of a future she denied herself complaining about the curtains.


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