Manhattan Monologues

In his fifty-seventh book over the past fifty years, New York lawyer/novelist Louis Auchincloss returns to what he knows best: WASPish wealthy Manhattan families and the insular world they inhabit.

In ten stories—mostly in monologue or memoir form, organized chronologically from “Old New York” before World War I to “Nearer Today” in the 1970’s—Auchincloss gives voice to sons who fall short of family expectations and daughters whose only decision is whether to marry for money or love, as well as mothers who manipulate, and fathers who dominate—all of them sounding very much alike, as if they had just stepped out of a Balzac novel.

True to the monologue tradition, many of these speakers reveal more about themselves than they know. For example, in “He knew He Was Right,” a man writes a memo to let his sons know he is not the moral monster his ex-wife makes him out to be—only to reveal that he is a sexual predator after all.

The two strongest stories are “The Heiress,” in which a woman, with anachronistic equanimity, tells of living in the shadow of a powerful father and a successful husband, and “The Scarlet Letter,” in which a man commits adultery just so his wealthy father-in-law will not know his daughter is guilty of infidelity and thus lose faith in what his life has stood for.

Although there are no blatant satiric barbs in Auchincloss’s presentation of affluent capitalism, these stories are not mere paeans to prosperous white Anglo Saxon Protestantism; the characters are often too obviously crass, elitist, and self-indulgent for that.