AS ARE THOMAS SAVAGE'S 11 other novels, For Mary, With Love is a serious, pensive and unfailingly interesting consideration of important themes that weigh heavily on the American psyche: the longing for wealth, position and influence; the tensions between social classes, and the conflicts between "old" and "new" Americans; the desire of women for independence and the compromises involved in obtaining it on terms set by men. It is a less than completely successful novel because of certain difficulties in point of view and tone, and because its central character is almost entirely unsympathetic; but anything that Savage writes is certain to be several cuts above the run of what passes for serious fiction these days, and For Mary, With Love is no exception.
Its title, like much else in the novel, is in some measure sarcastic: Mary Skoning is incapable of giving or receiving love. As the story begins she is a teen ager living in the small Illinois city of Villiers, 37 miles west of Chicago, in 1905. Her Danish father is a dour, determined widower with a herd of 50 milk-cows. Mary herself is a creature of eye-stopping beauty in whom "the word 'sex' glowed like a coal ready for the first breath of the bellows." When she is interviewed for admission to Villiers Academy, its headmistress recognizes her allure and her mystery: "What adjective was it that described Mary Skoning? Poised? Charming? Forward? Distant? Somehow you had to reach towards Mary Skoning to get her into focus. She made no move to help you."
At the academy Mary is a poor girl surrounded by rich ones, but she immediately establishes herself not only because of her unshakeable self-confidence but because she becomes the best friend of Emerald Tayloe, daughter of the richest man in town. Emerald is sensitive, loyal--and plain beyond the repair of cosmetics. She accepts Mary's offer of friendship with gratitude and relief, even if that offer comes because, she suspects, "Mary likes me for my money." As Emerald tells her mother: "Well, money is all I've got. Isn't that what you offer? What you've got? And Mary offered me company --friendship. Everybody else hates me. . . . And I'll tell you another thing, Mama. Mary doesn't need us. Wait and see. Mary doesn't need anybody."
For a long time that indeed seems to be the case. Mary moves to Chicago, enrolls at Northwestern, and supports herself modeling fashionable clothing. Upon her graduation she is offered, and accepts, a position tutoring the young son of a coarse but landed couple in Montana. There she meets and marries Hal Bower, a pleasant, ineffectual young man whose parents have attempted with limited success to import the manners of Philadelphia society to the log-cabin world of the Northwest. It is not exactly a marriage of convenience, but she brings no love to it: "Hal's love for her, if it was indeed love, was surely to satisfy his own need--sex. What Mary wanted from him was a certain amount of money--call it security--and position--call it Society."
She comes to discover, though, that she is not the only person with an ulterior interest in this marriage; Hal suffers from a degenerative disease, which she had not been told about prior to the marriage. So when Mary decides to leave Hal, she has no difficulty in rationalizing her departure:
"They say she deserted her husband just when he most needed her, but those who so maligned her could not have known that she had been trapped, that she would not have married Hal if the Bowers had been honest with her. Had they been honest she would not have married him and found herself in this position. They said she deserted her child, the little boy Jack, but that is only in a manner of speaking, for the Bowers would never have allowed her to take Jack away, and this she perfectly understood. What the Bowers had wanted was a young woman who would produce a child, and that she had done. He was theirs. Jack's future lay among the vast Bower acres, under that sky. Only the sentimental would have suggested that he share her own uncertain future. Sometime later she might be of some real service to him, but in the meantime it must be remembered that a person has a right to be of service to herself. No human being can be expected to remain a prisoner of circumstance if there is possibility of escape."
Thus cleansed of any unpleasant odor of obligation or guilt, Mary sets forth to San Francisco to become the kept woman of a wealthy merchant, Mark Pollinger. It is, as she sees it, a business relationship; she gives him sex, he gives her money. She becomes the embodiment of "the woman of fashion of that time--brittle, chic, detached," a person who has liberated herself from "the chains that, through love or moral responsibility or simple kindness, shackle so many." But she has not liberated herself from the tricks that fate plays. She falls in love, or at least thinks she does, with a man named Peter Edwards; she marries him, and thus she shares the unexpected turn of events that traumatically alters his life. At the end, though, there is little reason to believe that she will permit his difficulties to alter her own life for very long.
Mary Skoning Edwards may well be as thoroughly dislikeable a protagonist as exists in American fiction-- by contrast Clyde Griffiths, in An American Tragedy, seems the cherubic boy next door--and even though she is dislikeable for all the right reasons, her heartlessness makes it extremely difficult for the reader to become engaged in her life. This problem is compounded by the tone of the novel, which upon occasion--usually when Savage is commenting on the wealthy or the socially pretentious--slips from the satiric into the merely sarcastic. And the novel has an inexplicable structural peculiarity: it introduces, in a brief opening chapter, a narrator who thereafter for all practical purposes disappears. We wait for him to make a meaningful or revealing reappearance but he never does, and thus his existence becomes more of a mystery than anything that happens to Mary; if the novel opened with what is its second chapter, it would be much stronger.
Nonetheless, it is quite strong enough to surmount these shortcomings. Savage has a penetrating eye for machinations and hypocrisies, both those of individuals and those of society, and he exposes them remorselessly. He has an equally sensitive eye for the subtle intricacies of family life, a subject about which he writes as well as any American novelist. Over his long and notably productive career he has shown himself to be a writer of real consequence; it is a shame, bordering on an outrage, that so few readers have discovered him.