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.