“The Harvard Bride: A Mountain Brook Novel”
Author: Katherine Clark
Publisher: Story River Books, The University of South Carolina Press
Price: $27.99 (Hardcover)
In the months before his death this spring, the novelist Pat Conroy selected a number of titles for his series Story River Books, which he had instituted with the University of South Carolina Press.
Among these were the four novels of Katherine Clark’s Mountain Brook quartet. “The Harvard Bride” is the third.
This is an ambitious project. Clark means to cover the ground in the Tiny Kingdom of Mountain Brook as Jane Austen worked at her patch in Hampshire, England.
Clark is progressing. “The Headmaster’s Darlings” was mostly social satire, poking fun at the pretentiousness of Mountain Brook society, interior decorating and conspicuous consumption, and featuring Norman Laney, the huge teacher at the Brook-Haven School, a private academy. Laney’s mission in life was to help some of his gifted pupils to escape their conformist upper-middle-class Alabama world, at least for a while, study elsewhere, not UA, preferably in the Ivy League, and perhaps return one day with some fresh ideas.
One of these privileged escapees was Caroline Elmore, freshman at Harvard, who, in the second novel, All the Governor’s Men, became engaged to Daniel Dobbs, Harvard senior, a summer campaign worker for an opponent of George Wallace. In Governor’s Men, we learned a lot about Dobbs, his humble Opelika roots, and his character, and it was not all good.
This third novel moves from the political to the domestic/marital.
“The Harvard Bride” opens with the over-the-top wedding of Caroline, just graduated, and Daniel. Even as they drive home from the reception, Norman Laney and his mother agree, the marriage won’t work. They’re right; it fails before the thank-you notes are completed.
Having seen Daniel operate in Governor’s Men, this reader agreed with Norman and his mother. Daniel is selfish and immature and in love with the idea of marrying the Mountain Brook girl. One character remarks, sardonically, “the ultimate symbol of success, that you have made it in Alabama, if you get that Mountain Brook girl on your arm.”
Some might insist that the reviewer not give too much away here, usually sound advice, but this is not a murder mystery. It is a sensitive examination of a young marriage under stress. Daniel, now a young legal associate at a top firm, works all the time. Good-looking, weak, corrupt and naïve at the same time, he is easy prey for the beautiful, skillful and amoral UA ex-Kappa who will ensnare him.
(There is a set piece at the Kappa House that is not to be missed. Caroline has been invited to lunch and we see her experience the ritual, with house mother, cooks and Kappas, for the first time. They didn’t have that at Harvard.)
Caroline is also an innocent who has only wanted to be herself, read a lot of books and avoid excessive cosmetics. We are told, way too many times in fact, how Caroline was chubby, not sociable, had a bad haircut and no flirtatious powers. Now she must cope with her pain and profound disillusionment alone.
Caroline’s mother, Midge Elmore, cares only for appearances. It is money and social status that make life worth living, she believes. But she is admired by no one, including her own husband, “a man who didn’t respect her and didn’t much like her either.” Midge blames Caroline for losing Daniel through some kind of marital incompetence, “brand[ing] her a failure.” She doesn’t blame Daniel—men are just like that—or the other woman. Caroline’s failed marriage is Midge’s shame, and she shows Caroline no “sympathy or compassion.” Midge sees social life as Darwinian, even if the jungle is the bar at Highlands.
The novel bogs down in rehearsing Caroline’s supposed faults excessively, but then comes back to life strongly with one of the best love stories I have read in ages. Although not obvious at first, the right man appears, mature, patient, a man who honors her intelligence and wants Caroline to be her unique self. This novel has a truly convincing and happy ending.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.”