Saturday, August 20, 2011

Novella Review: Christopher Morley's Parnassus on Wheels

When Frances of Nonsuch Books mentioned the Art of the Novella Challenge, I was intrigued. But also a bit intimidated. My limited experience with novellas led me to believe that they’re rather like black holes – small yes, but incredibly dense. I’m thinking Kundera’s Slowness or Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men -- a short but intense intellectual workout. And anyone who’s checked in here recently knows that I’m on intellectual hiatus until the end of summer.*

Still, I love the near immediate gratification of a slim book, so I decided to poke through the Melville House catalog and see if there wasn’t something less than grim. I threw out the Russians immediately. Sorry Leo and Ivan – definitely winter fare. Every memory of Joyce I have involves a headache, and the Dublin pub crawl is only one of them – bye my Irish friend. But eventually I got to a part of the catalog that seemed far less threatening, inviting even. Being a Long Island girl, I was familiar with Christopher Morley from the beautiful park that’s named after him. So far so good. Then I read the description of his Parnassus on Wheels and saw it was a romantic comedy. No black hole there! Yippee – I could participate in the Art of the Novella challenge without harshing my summer groove! Good thing, because it was a fun little find!

The story is narrated by Helen McGill, the long-suffering spinster sister of nature essayist Andrew McGill. She’s been baking bread and cleaning up after her famous but selfish brother for 15 years when Roger Mifflin stops by their farm to try and sell Andrew his Parnassus, a bookstore on wheels, so he can retire to Brooklyn. Helen realizes that she’ll have even more work to do if her brother gets his hands on Parnassus, so she rashly decides to buy Parnassus herself and have her first-ever holiday. Mifflin comes along to show her how to work Parnassus, her brother can’t believe he’s been left high and dry, and hilarity and romance inevitably ensue.

The novella isn’t really deep or complex, but what was so very interesting was Morley’s ability to take on the voice of a 40ish woman who believes life has passed her by. At one point, Helen finds Mifflin’s notebook, and considers the impact he’s had on the people he’s met:
It seemed as if I had stumbled unawares on the pathetic, brave and lonely heart of the little man. I’m a commonplace creature, I’m afraid, insensible to many of the deeper things in life, but every now and then, like all of us, I come face to face with something that thrills me. I saw how this little, red-bearded pedlar was like a cake of yeast in the big, heavy dough of humanity: how he traveled about trying to fulfill in his own way his ideals of beauty. I felt almost motherly toward him: I wanted to tell him I understood him.

The way Helen is beginning to cherish Mifflin is so sweet, and rang so true, that I actually went to the internet to confirm that Christopher Morley wasn’t a pseudonym for a woman!

“Dear” is the perfect word for this novella – it’s a prototypical romantic comedy, something that could easily have been made into a Hepburn/Tracy movie. It’s completely different than any other novellas I’ve read: a breezy, summery story to usher me into fall.

And all those weightier tomes I’ve been putting off until then.

*That would actually be Monday, but I realize what a luxury it is to have the summer off in the first place, so I promise not to whine about it, no matter how sorely I’m tempted.


  1. It was a really sweet story, and I am glad you found your way to it before the end of summer as you know it. But I have to address the Joyce topic here. Please read one more novella when you get the chance? The Dead will change your mind about Joyce. Promise. And thanks so much for chiming in here. Now I am back to reading...

  2. This is sitting on my TBR pile. I absolutely love my recent review of his story Kathleen indicates. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one--can't wait till I make my way to it.

  3. A slim book is always for me an enticement to read it first!

  4. @Frances -- I have been enjoying your reviews for this challenge, and will definitely try the Joyce. I have two more I'll try to review this month though -- Lady Susan and Stempenyu!

    @Bev -- This was my first experience with Morley, but I will be seeking out his other works now!

    @Mystica -- There are times when a long book is totally comforting, but rarely during summer for me :-)

  5. I want to read this, just like I want to read all of Melville House's novellas. What a great series! :)

  6. @Marie -- reading the reviews really has given me a better handle on the range of the genre. It really is a great series!

  7. An intellectual hiatus during the summer - sounds nice, and exactly what I tend to choose.

    I think we haven´t seen very many novellas lately because publishers have decided they are not worthwhile. But with all the self-publishers and ebooks now, there will probably be a new trend of books of many different lengths. I have some ideas at least which seem more suitable for a novella than a full-length novel, and I embrace the new opportunities which enable me to write stories the length I feel they should be.

  8. I loved this when I read it a couple of years ago. Also love the sequel (sort of) THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP.

    Time to reread, I think. :)


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