Sloan Wilson 1920–
American novelist, short story writer, and autobiographer.
Wilson is the author of traditional novels of middle-class America. He is best known for his 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a work which portrays the struggles of the "average" businessman as he makes compromises in pursuit of the American dream of success. The novel became a best-seller and gave the American public a symbol for the big-city businessman with a suburban home and family. Wilson's main character, Tom Rath, is very aware of his conformity and the sacrifices he is making to achieve his goal. The novel touches upon the experiences of countless young men who faced the business world after World War II. As Herbert Gold has written, the novel "entered the collective soul of the middle class."
Wilson's other popular novel, A Summer Place (1958), deals with the nouveau riche who spend the summer months at Pine Island, off the coast of Maine. Through his portrayal of the complicated love affairs of two teenagers and their parents, Wilson shows the stereotypical problems of their class: alcoholism, infidelity, ennui. Yet his novel has a happy ending, a resolution some critics denounced as unrealistic and oversimplified.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit II (1983) is a sequel to Wilson's earlier success. It continues Tom Rath's story in 1963, when his boss is chosen to serve as chairman of a White House conference on mental health. As his assistant, Rath finds himself in Washington, heading towards a promising future. With the assassination of President Kennedy, however, the project is abandoned and Rath faces major career decisions. His personal life also becomes complicated. But again, everything is resolved neatly and Rath's life and new career look extremely hopeful.
According to Wilson, his books end happily because his own problems were miraculously resolved and he says many readers tell him his books mirror their lives. He maintains that he shows a broad picture of America, for, as he says: "America is business." The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and A Summer Place were adapted to film in 1956 and 1959, respectively.
Wilson is currently serving as a consultant to Philip Crosby Associates, Management Consultants, in Winter Park, Florida. He is using his experience as the basis for a nonfiction work, The New Executive.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed. and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)
"Voyage to Somewhere" is the story of Lieutenant Barton and his first command. Some time in May, 1944, Mr. Barton reported to a San Francisco yard to take over his new ship from the lady welders…. Lieutenant Barton and his green hands sailed the SV-126 safely to New Guinea and thereafter, for two years, shuttled her back and forth between steaming tropic islands….
When you live within 180 feet of men twenty-four hours a day for two years, life gets pretty intimate…. The climax comes during a roaring sea typhoon, in which the author's clean and compact prose appears at its best.
For the most part, Mr. Wilson turns in a creditable performance. It is unfortunate that "Voyage to Somewhere" is the victim of bad timing: its author could hardly know that Thomas Heggen's "Mister Roberts" would reach the bookstalls first—or that that rowdy, incomparable tale of the naval supply service would make further commentary on that branch more or less superfluous.
Richard Match, "Chocolate Bars to Leyte," in The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1946, p. 42.
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As calm and serene a garb as a man can wear is the standard gray flannel suit of commerce, a habiliment supposed to betoken solidity of character tastefully touched with quiet nonchalance. Calmness and serenity, however, frantically elude Tom Rath … [the title character of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"], and his inward solidity of character peeps forth, in quite pat fashion, only at the end of the narrative.
Rath killed seventeen men as a paratrooper in action in World War II. In Rome, he spent an unblessed honeymoon with Maria, a lovely young lady-of-the-streets whom he picked up in a bar….
Mr. Wilson succeeds in imparting the panicky quality of the lives of … [the] commuters in gray flannel…. The theme is that the dangers and worriments of New York-Connecticut life can be perhaps more difficult to overcome than the more dramatic perils of wartime combat.
This novel … is an interesting but spotty job. It is spotty because it is not easily believable in places. For example, Tom Rath gets a job as public relations officer for Ralph Hopkins, president of the United Broadcasting Company merely by walking into the offices in Radio City, applying for the position (not job), and filling out a brief autobiography. That doesn't seem the way in which such posts are handed out….
Nevertheless, Mr. Wilson does picture the type of decent, postwar man who has a conscience and...
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The faceless figure on the dust jacket of Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is apparently supposed to imply Everyman. The title of the novel and the publicity that preceded its publication seem to insist that Tom Rath, the novel's hero, is universal, at least to the minimal extent that he represents the young veterans struggling suavely to make their mark in the world of Madison Avenue.
Briefly, the plot is this: Tom Rath, the assistant to the director of the Schanenhauser Foundation, is struggling to keep his wife and three children on seven thousand dollars a year …; he resigns from the foundation to become special assistant to Ralph Hopkins, the head of the United Broadcasting Corporation, a position which he leaves after a bit of soul searching, a sacrifice that is rewarding both spiritually and materially.
These are the bare bones of the novel, and Wilson has covered them, not with flesh, but with a welter of incident, as commonplace as it is irrelevant…. The reader is also introduced to a host of casual characters, but the novelist is incapable of any characterization that goes beyond a few surface mannerisms and a little stock soliloquizing that is quite false. (p. 525)
At the end of the novel Rath is leaving his unrewarding job to step into a position specially created for him, one in which he will feel less like a prostitute…. He is easing his unruly conscience by...
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Louis O. Coxe
Without trying to be sociological or symbolical, Mr. Wilson has got more of the late 'forties and early 'fifties into ["The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"] than any other writer I know of; he has captured something of the unease of the time, its neurotic worry and speed and pressure. Yet Mr. Wilson is never portentous nor grimly profound; he writes fiction, not a Ph.D. thesis, and he has wit…. The story concerns a not so very young couple and in particular the husband's attempt to keep alive his marriage, his own self, and his roots in the past. Mr. Lionel Trilling has somewhere said something to the effect that the novel is—must be—about money. Mr. Wilson's novel is about money; it is also about one of the important phenomena of our day, the dropping down in the social and economic scale of many formerly "aristocratic" members of society, the mad struggle to maintain and consolidate one's position in the face not only of terrible economic pressure but in the face, in the teeth, of one's own violent disinclination. All the pathos, absurdity, and humor of the struggle come out clearly in Mr. Wilson's picture of his nice young man on the run. If there is a certain glibness, perhaps, in the conclusion—if Mr. Wilson lets his couple off too easily—I am not sure that this is as grave a fault as may appear…. Much of what Tom Rath, our man in gray flannel, has to cope with is simply Life; we can find it being coped with in the pages of George Eliot...
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"A Summer Place" is much better written than "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." The trouble is that this craftsmanship serves a conception of life that will not stand examination. At its heart is a conviction that only the self-made man is a "builder." He builds society, of course, or at least "makes" money, but above all he builds the loving domestic community. In their big moments, Mr. Wilson's admirable people walk naked on beaches, feeling themselves washed of years of falseness. But most of the time they are too busy with domestic problems of a high-grade soap-opera kind for such indulgences.
On one side of them stand the aristocrats like Bart Hunter, who thinks no gentleman makes a point of winning or working and is a pessimist. On the other side stand the narrow-minded, hasty-minded, lower-middle-class people who love respectability, Airwick and spayed cats. All these characters are implausible; they are the oversimplified, fantasy images of what are, apparently, the dominant values of the present American middle class. Because Mr. Wilson describes them earnestly and thoroughly, they have their fascination, though it is a fascination different from the one Mr. Wilson intended, and not without its own kind of horror.
Arthur Mizener, "Builders and Breakers," in The New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1958, p. 5.
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[A Summer Place] keeps the reader in suspense at the end of every chapter—waiting for the soap commercial. Can Molly Jorgenson and Johnny Hunter, teen-age lovers and troubled children of divorce, find lasting happiness by racing the stork to the altar? Will Johnny's mother Sylvia desert her alcoholic husband, with his blueblood pedigree and red-ink bank balance, for an adulterous affair with Molly's self-made millionaire father? Is life a game of second chance or an inescapably heir-conditioned nightmare?
The answers to these and sundry other questions are offered in a fictional session of bland man's buff by Sloan Wilson, the man who did more for gray flannel suits than Brooks Brothers….
Novelist Wilson is slick, readable and craftsmanlike. He has again chosen a highly American theme: the intensive pursuit of happiness. But he has recorded his findings without giving himself the satirical elbow room to comment on them. Author Wilson has chided gloomy fellow novelists who write "as if we were back in the Depression years," and his point is well taken. He himself is open to the opposite charge of a boom mentality about the human condition. The pithiest critique of this point of view came from F. Scott Fitzgerald during another boom: "The victor belongs to the spoils." (p. 105)
"Typewriter Tycoon," in Time, Vol. LXXI, No. 15, April 14, 1958, pp. 105-06....
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William James Smith
Off in a world not quite of its own there is a realm of literary endeavor known as "women's fiction."… Novels of this genre appear serially in one of the three or four big women's magazines and subsequently in book form. Sometimes, as in the case of A Summer Place, such a novel becomes a very successful book and earns the author a great deal of money. (p. 309)
Monetary considerations aside—and few women's fiction writers are so successful, or, frankly, as good, as Mr. Wilson—women's fiction has fairly consistent characteristics, none of which is necessarily sinful. This fiction must, first of all, be fairly "easy." Its aim is leisurely relaxation and it must not demand too much in the way of intelligence or patience. It should simulate a certain boldness of idea and at the same time incorporate all the current clichés. Here Mr. Wilson has succeeded admirably. He is quite seriously berated in some circles as a voice of the New Reaction because he portrayed a businessman sympathetically in Gray Flannel. He is, of course, an anthology of liberal aphorisms.
Story line is, by tradition, somewhat restricted in women's fiction. Like piped-in music the highest and lowest notes have been flattened out so as not to exacerbate sensitive nerves. (pp. 309-10)
A constant, almost an exclusive, theme of women's fiction is the Oak and the Willow motif. A Splendid Woman (all women are splendid...
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The latest 604-page redundancy by [Sloan Wilson, A Sense of Values,] may … serve a purpose: to stimulate total disenchantment with the disenchantment novel….
Nathan Bond, Author Wilson's protagonist, runs true to formula. In most disenchantment novels, the hero is a non-hero who attends an Ivy League college (Nathan goes to Yale), where he is traumatically snubbed because he lacks good looks or money, the two top things, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it. Lacking popularity, the non-hero decides to be different (Nathan wants to be an artist), but he invariably deserts his goal and runs rabbit-scared for life's lettuce (Nathan becomes a cartoonist and creates a Chaplinesque tramp called "Rollo the Magnificent").
But before the non-hero can be properly launched on his affluent career, otherwise known as the rat race, he must have a mate so that he can share his disenchantment. Early snapshots of his beloved are etched indelibly in the non-hero's mind, partly because he always lives his life flashbackwards. Nathan is forever recalling Amy arched against the sky on a diving board at poolside on her aunt's rambling estate. In disenchantment novels, these rambling estates are the toys of a gracious childhood soon to be whisked away by that legendary anti-Santa, the '29 crash. Nathan has his losses too—a father to cancer, a mother to an insane asylum. As Novelist Wilson handles them, these are life's little...
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Thomas E. Cooney
"A Sense of Values" is another handling by Sloan Wilson of the theme of his earlier novel, "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." Once again he examines the conflict of ambition with marriage, but this time in a man who has been wildly successful in a corner of the world that Tom Rath in the earlier book partly rejected. Nathan Bond, an artist-poet manqué who finds he has a golden touch as a syndicated cartoonist, is a lot like Rath….
Bond, unlike the temporizing Rath, sacrifices almost everything to his morbid drive for commercial success….
Here, the conscientious reviewer has a problem. He reflects that he has read over 600 pages avidly, but at the end has not felt particularly satisfied. Why? Because "A Sense of Values" is a topical rather than a poetic novel. The topical novel absorbs the reader's interest with details of a life he knows well, or would like to daydream about. Historical novels and novels about such sub-cultures of the modern world as advertising, war and middle-class marriage tend to be topical. The poetic novel, on the other hand, may well have a topical background, but it transcends it with people and events that endure in memory because they are somehow tragic, symbolic, mythic. For all its topical evocation of the Nineteen Twenties, for example, "The Great Gatsby" is a poetic novel.
Thus, though Nathan Bond's crisis makes him a better man, and though he is a subtler...
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[Mr. Sloan Wilson] is an eminently proper writer with a shrewd eye to the feminine trade and Hollywood. But although his novel is in no way offensive, it is utterly hollow. In its narrative technique and vision, A Sense of Values suggests a kind of gigantic cliché, spun out over six hundred unruffled pages. The entire design is weary with previous use…. The scenario writer will be able to leave the text intact: "I realized that everything I had to say she already knew. Her hair smelled sweet. Her hands told me that she needed me." Fadeout, soft organ music flowing into the dawn. And everything in the long narrative has the same celluloid inevitability. On his first ship, Bond performs precisely the same gestures of grave incompetence and nascent triumph as are performed in The Caine Mutiny and The Cruel Sea. His remembrance of uneasy adultery is set down in the very cadence of Marquand and O'Hara, but without the mastery of either. (p. 423)
George Steiner, "Winter of Discontent," in The Yale Review, Vol. L, No. 3, March, 1961, pp. 422-26.∗
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The Times Literary Supplement
The sad thing about [A Sense of Values] is that Mr. Wilson, who has talent and at one stage seemed really to care about American society, now writes as if he were himself in the final grip of the exurbanite disease….
As in so much American writing the style is flawless; but it is the sterile flawlessness of the Saturday Evening Post, so that one longs for an occasional lapse of taste or error in the custom-built plot in order to feel that either Mr. Wilson or at least his characters are human.
"Elegant Void," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3089, May 12, 1961, p. 297.
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In the 1920's, all the best people hang out at the Paradise Point Inn, a restricted Lake George hostelry owned by a close-knit association of three families. And the best of this 50 year reprise ["All the Best People"] re-creates the folkways of upper-middle-class life around the Lake during the eras of boom and bust. Mr. Wilson concentrates on two clans, the Stauffers and the Campbells….
As fortunes rise and wane, sailboat racing becomes a psychodrama for family hostilities, life at the hotel ambles on …, and the younger generation gropes innocently for its first love. When the younger Campbell son marries the Stauffer's younger daughter, the story loses its freshness and falls into a standard stereotype. Still, Mr. Wilson … has enough zest for the early days to give his novel a healthy momentum before it finally runs down.
Martin Levin, in a review of "All the Best People," in The New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1970, p. 49.
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["What Shall We Wear to This Party?", the] autobiography of the man who wrote "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," seems to promise some unpromising confessions—self-hatred, divorce, alcoholism, middle-aged romantic yearnings, nostalgia about a faded WASP propriety, hapless vanity, Internal Revenue problems, an uneasy Harvard boy now lurking in the body of a grandfather. And, indeed, it delivers this load of splintered kindling. Yet this book, after eight novels, which led many readers to think Sloan Wilson had no surprises in him, is finally touching, charming, and revelatory in the best way—it tells what the author knows and also more than he knows. It is a near miss at summing up the experience of a generation, marred mostly by a hastily sentimental running down at the end, which is itself a symptom of the life his career has attempted to define….
Whatever Sloan Wilson offers in his paltry last chapters, the book as a whole tells more, a more powerful instrument than the will of its harassed author. (p. 7)
Wilson begins by reminding us of how his war seemed "an authentic struggle between good and evil," and how he had to pass the tests of bravery and seasickness. After all this stalwartness, there was the scramble "to build the house which filled our dreams—or at least those of our wives—to join the country club…." In Bicentennial America this sounds archaic, even to most of those who lived it, and yet...
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Hope Hale Davis
It is a surprise to discover … unflinching honesty in Sloan Wilson's What Shall We Wear to This Party? The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Twenty Years Before & After…. Wilson's book is virtually swamped in washes of the sentimentality that the author knows is a problem he has never been able to solve. Still, he does recognize his deficiencies, and it is a rare autobiography that puts pride second to truth. That sly, pathetic best foot nearly always slips forward….
[Wilson] has written about what matters. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, for all its sentimentality, is based on a truth he saw early. Since then everyone, even President Ford, has learned to pay lip service to "the quality of life." But it was no cliché in 1955, when Wilson told the world the Madison Avenue-suburban rat race was not worth running. So many thousands welcomed the book, he fell prey to the very success he had seen as false. (p. 20)
Hope Hale Davis, "Excising the Hurt," in The New Leader, Vol. LIX, No. 22, November 8, 1976, pp. 19-20.∗
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Can sincerity save a badly written book from being dreadful? Sometimes, but not always. [In Small Town], Wilson's obvious earnestness only intensifies the embarrassment of his most mawkish exploration of male menopause. Divorced photographer Ben Winslow comes back to his Vermont hometown from the empty singles life in California—and finds that his alienated teenage son Ebon has been taken in by a farmhouseful of obliging women…. Soon Ben is part of this extended family…. One wants to like this heart-on-sleeve novel, but the hopeless dialogue, toneless prose, and daytime-soap plotting make that a sad impossibility. (pp. 901-02)
A review of "Small Town," in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XLVI, No. 16, August 15, 1978, pp. 901-02.
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The story [of Small Town] is a familiar one and Sloan Wilson … executes it with few surprises. Hewat, who drives a white Lincoln Continental, is the stock local businessman-politician; the Kellys are the stock Irish family down to their very names; the California to which Ben compares Livingston is the stock playground of rich, plastic, unhappy people; Ben and Rosie's battle against corrupt small town politics is as old as the upstate hills they love. For long stretches, moreover, the stories of Ben, Rosie, Ebon and Annie come so much to the fore that Livingston and its citizens are neglected, thus rendering Small Town only mildly interesting as an exploration of the intricacies of small town living.
The language of the novel also leaves a lot to be desired. The modifiers are usually superfluous, the dialogue often fails to convey the intensity of the moment and is frequently so saccharine as positively to diminish intensity, the use of parentheses to separate thoughts from words in some conversations is a distracting device…. Still, despite the fact that they are given few eloquent words or thoughts, Wilson's major characters emerge as human beings of very definite proportions, dreams and troubles. Readers willing to look past stylistic inadequacies may find in Small Town a story of the search and fight of several memorable characters told by a highly compassionate man. (p. 42)
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A literate soap opera, ["Small Town"] tells of middle-aged world-famous journalist, Ben Winslow, who wants to launder the gray years through a return to and possible renewal in his hometown. Life, like the laundry, never comes out sparkling-pure; but Ben, revolving in a continuous cycle of lechery and greed, a nefarious jealous brother, corrupt country-club and corporation politics, emerges clean. The powerful bleaching agent: Love….
["Small Town" is] clean (no smutty sex scenes) and, rare bird, a great love story of the over thirty. And it's dishonest. A cheap-dyed, slick distortion of reality: the apparent championing of traditional moral values doesn't hide the ring-around-the-collar. And the author's friends, puffing the work, titillate the potential reader by calling it "engrossing autobiography" and "personal history."
Eileen Kennedy, in a review of "Small Town," in Best Sellers, Vol. 38, No. 11, February, 1979, p. 343.
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In 1941, before the United States entered the war, the State Department called on the Coast Guard to patrol Greenland's coasts…. Before the war was over, the eight-ship American Greenland Patrol captured one German weather ship and sank another.
The Greenland Patrol is the focus of Sloan Wilson's novel, "Ice Brothers."…
"Ice Brothers" is smoothly written and cleverly plotted. Wilson's fictional accounts of two sea and air battles seem plausible and realistic. Set against the frozen adventures of the crew of the converted trawler Arluk is the story of Wilson's hero, 22-year-old college drop-out Paul Schuman. Paul's adventures fighting the Germans are played out against his internal battles….
The Eskimos of Greenland are important characters as well. Wilson portrays them as innocent victims of German aggression, Danish colonialism, and American sailors' enthusiasm. It is the Eskimos who provide the book's title. "The Eskimos have a saying," a Danish official tells the Arluk's crew. "On the ice all men are brothers. It must be true, for these people of the ice are the only human beings on earth who fight no wars."…
Wilson's story-telling ability, his ear for dialogue, and his realistic portrayal of the icy environment of Greenland are the highlights of this book. The story rolls along smoothly as Wilson skillfully builds toward the climactic battle scene. The book is not in the...
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Following up on the success of "Ice Brothers," Sloan Wilson goes down to the sea again to launch a most commendable thriller ["The Greatest Crime"], a tale of drug-running gone awry. Meet Andy Anderson, a reformed alcoholic, a Harvard grad, an itinerant captain and a man in his late 50s who is deeply in love…. A $500-million shipment of cocaine can reach the U.S. from Columbia if assorted pros, from Andy to trigger men to benign government officials, all pull together…. Thus the voyage to Long Island becomes a cliff-hanger: Can Andy and his cohorts abort the cruise? Will the Coast Guard arrive in time? Will backers retaliate? Like an orchestrator, Wilson succeeds in exploiting each of these disquieting notes right to the end.
A review of "The Greatest Crime," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 218, No. 21, November 21, 1980, p. 47.
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[Pacific Interlude] has some of the virtues and many of the vices of traditional war fiction. Examining the invasion of the Philippines from a perspective quite different from the usual hit-the-beaches fare, Wilson focuses on the dangerous lot of a Coast Guard gas tanker…. Unfortunately, the novel's genuinely exciting action sequences take a backseat to a cliché-ridden personal drama centering on the ship's captain, 25-year-old Sylvester Grant…. [Imagine] an earnest Van Johnson type as the hero and you've got the picture. Still, World War II buffs will be pleased with the action and willing to ignore most of the clichés.
Bill Ott, in a review of "Pacific Interlude," in Booklist, Vol. 79, No. 1, September 1, 1982, p. 31.
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Back in the 1950's Sloan Wilson wrote a novel, "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," that caught the essence of what was then becoming known as the rat race. It was the story of a chronic worrier, Tom Rath, whose desire to be himself could not be reconciled with his ghostwriter's trade…. The novel had a happy conclusion. Tom inherited grandma's big house, and his wife, Betsy, forgave his wartime infidelity. But now, a quarter-century later, we learn in a sequel ["The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit II"] that the Raths' contentment was momentary. Tom Rath, as the new novel picks him up in his middle age, is just the same old worrier. He still loathes writing for other people, he still frets because his paycheck can't meet occasional extravagances. Moreover, his teen-age children present a whole new set of exasperations. His relationship with his wife is outwardly calm, but he is ready for a fling. The fling, with a good-humored woman who is not a worrier, makes the story. Sloan Wilson writes of dalliance with a sure touch. But, in pursuit of another happy ending, he contrives an unreal conclusion. It so happens that Tom and Betsy are each ready for divorce and each relieved to learn the other has been two-timing. The mutual rush to forgive and separate is hard for the reader to swallow. Could any divorce ever have gone so smoothly, shedding contentment on everyone involved? But if the novel as a whole is unconvincing, it has its idyllic moments. Readers...
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