As is the case with all of Vidal’s historical novels, characters are vividly described and balanced carefully against one another. The women exhibit considerable wit and shrewdness. Emma is every bit as sly as any of the politicians in the book, withholding information from her father when she believes that it will hurt him and treating her fiance, John Apgar, tactfully even when it is clear that she is receiving this unimaginative man’s attentions for the sake of relieving Schuyler’s anxiety over her security. Similarly, Denise Sanford becomes Schuyler’s dear friend and confederate and Emma’s closest companion, for Denise has a subtle feel for the politics of human relationships that surpasses the rather dull or comic conventionality of most of the Americans Schuyler meets. Complicating the friendship of Denise, Emma, and Charles is the presence of William Sanford, an opportunist and intriguer whom Schuyler despises and yet must tolerate when it becomes clear that Emma’s happiness depends on the favors of Denise’s husband. Once again, the compromises of private life and politics are skillfully intertwined in Vidal’s fiction.
The historical figures, particularly James Garfield, stimulate Schuyler’s perplexity over American politics. On one hand, Garfield is well educated in the classics, argues from the standpoint of clearly articulated principles, and seems able to balance private and public interests. On the other hand, he is a part of...
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