One of the surprising entries in the biographical section of The Columbia History of the American Novel is a brief discussion of Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948). She wrote more than fifty novels over her long career, many of them set in the San Francisco area. Her work, however, consisted mostly of romances for the popular market. I read one of them, American Wives and English Husbands, awhile ago. I wasn’t all that impressed with it but thought I might have missed something. So I decided to try again. The title seems excessively dramatic, by the way.
The Avalanche: A Mystery Story by Gertrude Atherton. Frederick A. Stokes (1919), 229 pp.
A rich, handsome but stuffy San Francisco businessman, Price Ruyler, senses unusual tension in his relationship with his lovely young wife, Helene. He aims to find out what’s wrong and looks first at Marie Delano, his wife’s large and cold mother. Madame Delano had arrived from France after the 1906 earthquake without even a letter of introduction. Only Price’s marriage to Helene had gained her mother a place in the city’s upper crust. Could she be hiding something that was causing Helene’s unhappiness?
This might be considered a the-rich-are-like-us story. Although we probably don’t have posh suburban estates and rubies the size of golf balls, we may be dealing with marital communication issues, unpleasant mothers-in-law and family secrets. But even readers who identify with the problems of the wealthy may ultimately be disappointed by the novel’s structure. The story is entirely told from the point of view of Price Ruyler. All the other characters, including his wife, are seen through his eyes. Since he lacks perspicacity and imagination, he views Helene primarily as a socially acceptable bit of arm-candy who needs a few years to mature. As Price learns more about his wife, it becomes clearer that her story is more interesting than his. The author, in short, has written about the wrong character. Nevertheless, the book is of some historical interest, though it probably does not show Atherton at her best.