From the Terrace by John O’Hara
publication date: 1958
I’m surprised John O’Hara isn’t more well-known as an American author. He takes the epic nature of a Steinbeck novel and combines it with the sharp social observation of a Fitzgerald novel, or he did in From the Terrace, anyway.
Although the beginning of From the Terrace was slow, and there was certainly a lot of text to get through (897 pages!), it was an absorbing and rewarding read. The book presented the life of Alfred Eaton, from his birth in a small Pennsylvania town to a wealthy and indifferent father in the early 1890s, to his ascent up the New York City society ladder, and through the 1950s, when the book was published.
O’Hara wonderfully captured so many aspects of America in the first half of the twentieth century, through the experiences of Alfred. For example, after Alfred returned stateside from World War I, he had this realization:
And here [Alfred] was learning through his father and mother a great truth that would be applicable to everyone else that had not been in the war. The mud-and-bayonet men would feel it more intensely, but to some degree all men who had been in uniform, under discipline, undergoing inconvenience, hardship and pain, treated like schoolchildren even in the matter of rewards – ice cream, cigarettes, chocolate, medals, small amounts of money, vacations measured by the hour or the day – were wanting or were going to want things to be different, and the first things were their people, and the difference was they should be the same but better. And it was too much to ask.
On a more personal note, Alfred Eaton was maybe the first literary character I was in the love with. I literally fell in love with Alfred Eaton. Sure, I’ve found characters cute or funny or sexy or intriguing before, but I really feel like I left a piece of my heart in this novel. O’Hara did such an incredible job of shaping and revealing Alfred to be this hateable, likable, lovable three-dimensional person. I’m not saying Alfred was all great. He was patronizing toward women, a hothead, and was not particularly hospitable toward his family. However, he was sexy, hilarious, and, even at his worst, I wanted to find the good in him.
The book certainly had its flaws. Like many books from that period, it only included the white, upper-class, straight viewpoint. O’Hara’s treatment of women wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great, either. Also, as mentioned above, it is very long. Perhaps the density of the book contributed to its greatness; perhaps, however, a more adept writer could have captured the mood and characters in fewer words.
For anyone interested in American literature, this book is a must-read.
5/6: seek this book out
I could not find many reviews online, so here is the book’s goodreads page and a 1960 New York Times review of the movie adaption, which discussed parts of the book: