“‘All people who think sooner or later go through hell.’ ‘Then my hell must be ahead of me,’ said Jane steadfastly. ‘You haven’t even experienced a purgatory?’ smiled Jimmy. ‘Something you got in and got out of?’ ‘Not even a purgatory,’ said Jane. ‘I’m a very naïve person. I’ve never experienced much of anything.’ ‘Perhaps that will be your hell.'”
With my recent completion of Margaret Ayer Barnes’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Years of Grace, I also completed yet another entire decade—the 1930’s. Thankfully, as a consequence, I also finished off the last of the early Pulitzer snooze-fests.
There is a grand self-importance to the very vast majority of the novels that won Pulitzer Prizes in the early goings of the institution. Furthermore, the very vast majority of these novels are all centered around one common theme: “the times are changing and we’re not happy about it.” There is a hopeless, relentless clinging to the days of old that pervades these early novels; the protagonists standing against the winds of change; the authors channeling the famous writers of the British Victorian movement. And Years of Grace certainly embodies all of the worst attributes of these early winners.
I couldn’t be happier that I’m done slogging my way through the first 15 or so years of the Pulitzer Prize.
So, Years of Grace… This book… This flippin’ book… Where do I even start?
Okay, here’s the thing about this book—I thought this was going to one sort of book, I trudged through it dutifully, and fully expected the book to go one direction; instead of doing that, and instead of going the complete opposite direction, Barnes chose to stay in the same exact place she inhabited the entire duration of the book. And, for that, I hated this book. Just like One of Ours, by Willa Cather, this entire novel—a perfectly fine novel, in fact—was completely ruined by a stupid ending.
The first thing that drove me crazy about this book was the way Barnes separated its four sections. The book is about a woman named Jane and it chronicles her life through a series of romances. So, because romance and motherhood and domestic wifery are the only things that matter in a woman’s life to a Victorian author, each section is named for her love interest at the time: Andre, Stephen, Jimmy, and the final section, Cicily, Agnes, and Steve (her children). Jane, being female, has no identity, obviously, so she has to find her identity and have her life defined by men and children.
I would have forgiven that—I did forgive it for 99% of the book—if, in the end, Jane decided to realize that she is, in fact, a human being and put her needs and desires first and choose happiness. Barnes sets the whole book up for that ending, that’s the ending the reader expects the entire novel, that’s the feminist tones that Barnes throughout the whole book… But it’s not the ending we get. No, we get an ending that spits in the face of feminism, that spits in the face of happy and settles for comfortable.
There is nothing I despise more than a book that wastes my time, and that’s exactly what this book did. Superb writing, decent story, but I can’t get behind the values it espouses nor the curmudgeonly attitude of the author.
Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.