Sunday, November 08, 2009

Choosing by Title: Remembered and Forgotten

I. A book's title is at least as important as its cover. Certainly that's the case with Sue Kaufman and her legacy. Many many people have at least heard of her Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967). How many can say the same of one of her earlier novels, Green Holly (1961)? First, Green Holly is good, a take on New York society in the tradition of Edith Wharton and Henry James, updated to the 1950s. But from its title, what the hell? To me, it's just a bad bad bad title, and says nothing.

Compare with Diary of a Mad Housewife. Three components: Diary (form) + Mad (state of mind) + Housewife (gender and social role). Instant and lasting appeal. Excellent title. Compare with another memorable title, possibly inspired by Kaufman's: Pedro Almodóvar's movie Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown / Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988). Here we have similar components as in Kaufman's, though without giving away form or social roles.

II. In Green Holly, Kaufman details the early adult life of Jean Fell, her frenemy Phoebe Butler (plus husband Peter Butler), and her involvement with Walter Asch; Walter's wife Elise, whose parents died in the Holocaust, is "mentally distressed" and their daughter Belinda is also "troubled." Plenty of social conflict built in. Glimpses of social mores of the late 1940s and 1950s in New York City; also, flashbacks to Phoebe and Jean's college days, and their travels in Europe after the Second World War. Life at work, at home, and around the city; cocktail parties. The latter are Jean's "way of settling accounts after . . . being entertained by others. . . [T]he more sophisticated of her friends -- married, single, divorced -- only cynically regarded candlelight, flowers, little buffet suppers, as some enormous sort of joke . . ." (p. 99). Aside from period-place observations, Green Holly turns on Jean's changing relationships (both intense) with Phoebe and Walter.

As for the obscure and forgettable title, it derives from the novel's epigraph: "[U]nto the green holly: Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly." From Shakespeare, As You Like It (ca. 1600). Unto the Green Holly would certainly have worked better, like Catcher in the Rye.

Today's Rune: Growth.



Cloudia said...


I feel growth in my grey matter as I read your review today.

Like that?


Aloha, Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Charles Gramlich said...

I typically am not much influenced by covers of books but titles definitely do make a difference to me. I love good titles and consider them part of the book or story actually.

Anonymous said...

A bit redundant too, as holly (various species of the genus Ilex) is an evergreen. Maybe that's part of the point (?)


jodi said...

Erik, I adore reading book titles, and movie titles, but I hate it when a good book or movie is fabulous with a crummy title. I want to check out "Green Holly" based on your trusted recomendation! Thanks, friend!