N. A. Straight's short novel is a trip in more senses than one. It is a trip into the wonderful past, an escape from the dead weight of middle age to the airiness of growing up. It is a trip away from reality into remembered fantasy. It also, in the literal sense, describes a trip from Grand Central to Providence, a train ride which confines the remembrance of years to a few hours in a parlor car.
When the book opens, Susannah Glendenning, still in her 20s, has settled down with a lapful of books and papers, to pass the time on her way to a childhood holiday home in New England.
That home, long unvisited, has become a museum after the death of its occupants. It is called Inchiquin Farm, but it does not need much inside knowledge to identify it as Hammersmith Farm -- the Newport home until lately of the Hugh D. Auchincloss family, and so, once upon a time, of their celebrated children and step children.
The "A" in Straight's name stands for Auchincloss, and her novel is dedicated to "Janet Norton Lee Bouvier Auchincloss Morris," so that this identification reveals no secret. Since it is a novel, it does not paint a family conversation piece after real life, but simply uses the historic past of a famous house as background for nostalgic description of what it felt like to grow up rich, among aunts and cousins still richer, some 30 years ago, when there were still servants at command and plenty of large black cars in the garage.
Susannah dozes in her parlor car chair, at the same time thumbing through an investigation of what led to the air crash in which Ariabella, her special childhood friend, had been killed. Her mind clicks back and forth, not without noticing an attractive fellow-traveler who keeps an eye firmly on her throughout. On the last page we learn that his destination, too, is Providence. We are to suppose that Susannah has not seen the last of him.
The scenario is a trifle thin. All the events and excitements the reader is expected to follow come to him like visions from the past, not as shared experiences. In order to glimpse the vision, he must not only keep Susannah herself in clear focus, but also perceive a bewildering group of relatives through her eyes.
This demands the skill, perhaps not of Proust or Joyce, but at least of Vita Sackville-West. Straight is both clever and funny. She can snap out a good phrase and note a sharp observation. But the human material which justified the hair-splitting evocations of Proust or Joyce was scarce in the Rhode Island of the 1950s. Newport has its own peculiarities, yet they do not overlap the novelistic riches of Dublin or the Faubourg St. Honore. Nor, as a romantic memory, can Inchiquin Farm easily compete with Sackville-West's Chevron. It is just that the density of living in the past -- that density which so charmed Henry James -- evaporated in the strong air of Narragansett Bay.
Moreover, Susannah's Newport relatives are a shadowy lot. She does not even see them clearly herself, and she seems not to have cared for them much. Worldly Aunt Miriam had pitchforked her into marriage with horrible Jed Glendenning, but treated her as a child-bride for whom the barest knowledge of sexual procedure was unnecessary. The pages in which Susannah comes most sharply to life deal with one of the grimmest wedding nights in fiction, and do it very well indeed.
Throughout the book there are adolescent moments, seldom very agreeable for the victim, pierced by Straight with a gimlet eye. She describes Susannah as a tomboy, a misfit in a snobbish and outdated society. At the end of her story we like her enough to hope that Jed gets his comeuppance, and that a new life, freed on Inchiquin Farm, will begin on the solidly down-to-earth platforms of the Providence railroad station.