(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Aurora Greenway, a selfish, fanciful widow, spends much of her rather empty life talking on the telephone to her daughter, Emma. They talk nearly every morning at seven-thirty (often to Emma’s chagrin—unlike her mother, she is not an early riser), and it is around their problematic relationship that the novel is built. Terms of Endearment is divided into two books of unequal length: The first, longer book covers a single year (1962) in the life of Aurora Greenway; the second book, a fraction the length of the first, is devoted to the last five years (1971-1976) of Emma’s short life. This disproportionate division reflects the central tragedy of the novel: Emma has always lived in her mother’s shadow, has never lived up to the older woman’s expectations. The brief final section of the novel is as stunted and formless as Emma’s self-esteem.

Since she has been left financially independent by a shadowy, seldom-mentioned husband, Aurora Greenway has little to do with her days except receive and reject her various suitors, and much of the first part of the novel is devoted to her seriocomic relationships with men. She is proud of the fact that most men are terrified of her exacting standards and her erratic behavior. She plays one beau off against another, juggling luncheon and dinner dates with great virtuosity and actively encouraging jealousy among her suitors. When one man is deemed too dull or too overbearing, he is dropped and soon replaced by a new, more pliant subject. This rather reckless game is Aurora’s method of coping with widowhood; her indolent though well-mannered husband, Rudyard, has been dead for three years when the novel opens. Her elegant house in the River Oaks section of Houston is filled with beautiful objects, her closets with expensive clothes. Her existence is diverting and leisurely but ultimately unfulfilling.

In stark contrast to her mother’s frivolous, self-absorbed life is Emma’s own. When the novel opens, Emma has been married for two years to “Flap” Horton, a college English major who can provide her with no better a residence than a garage apartment. The marriage is unsatisfying on every level: The couple’s sex life is perfunctory and unimaginative, and their conversations frequently end in violent but comic confrontations. Aurora is probably correct in her assessment that Emma has married badly. Only two years into the marriage, Flap’s interest in his wife is waning, and they are...

(The entire section is 1010 words.)

Terms of Endearment Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Terms of Endearment finished the Houston trilogy on which Larry McMurtry had been working for a decade, although he later returned to finish the story of Aurora Greenway in The Evening Star. McMurtry had intended Terms of Endearment to be Emma Horton’s book, but her mother, Aurora Greenway, took over. Once she had been invented as a character, it was difficult to keep Aurora under wraps. She is forty-nine years old and three years widowed; she is good-looking, plump, and self-centered. As the story opens in Houston in 1967, Aurora is ticking off her standard list of complaints about her daughter: Emma is overweight (Aurora overlooks her own dietary sins), dresses poorly, and is married to a “drip.”

Aurora is not really angry, Emma says: “Her mother hadn’t really been on the attack; she had just been exercising her peculiar subtle genius for making everyone but herself seem vaguely in the wrong.” Aurora goes to pieces—screaming and flailing the air with her hands and finally collapsing—when Emma tells her that she is pregnant with her first child. Aurora’s blowup is not a result of concern for her daughter; it is a result of the fact that she is going to be a grandmother and is afraid that her suitors will drop her.

Aurora would have been an easy woman for readers to hate, but she turns into an attractive character as her irresistible, bubbling, and intelligent personality emerges. She is an “emphatic” woman—the kind that McMurtry’s male characters are often drawn to and with whom they cannot cope. Her romantic life is confusing. She has various suitors begging her to marry them: a bank vice president, a retired general, a former opera star, and a wealthy playboy from Philadelphia. None can cope with her: “Only a saint could live with me,” Aurora says, “and I can’t live with a saint. Older men aren’t up to me and younger men aren’t interested.” She cannot...

(The entire section is 795 words.)