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Richard Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and "Tomorrow Will Be Better"], though quite different in intention and effect, have several obvious elements in common. They are both drawn from the same level of American society; they both deal with family life in Brooklyn. (Incidentally, in this very consistency of substance there is a admirable suggestion of integrity: here is a novelist sticking carefully to what she knows, to material she can responsibly handle, without faking or long-range research.) Again, both books exhibit the same fine warmth, the same intense, almost brooding tenderness for people. In both there is a quick feeling for pathos and for absurdity, and a talent for discovering, through fervent insight, the quality of simple, true drama in ordinary lives. Finally, both novels share the benefits of a prose style remarkable for its unpretentiousness—an easy, tidy, direct kind of prose which calls no attention to itself as a medium, but which by its very unself-consciousness lets the experience shine immediately through the transparent words.

Yet in spirit the two novels are noticeably different. By contrast with its successor, "The Tree" now seems in retrospect a more racy, more spontaneous, more joyous work. One might speculate as to whether the author, pondering on that body of material which she has made her own, has not developed during the years a graver, more somberly complicated attitude toward it. "Tomorrow Will Be Better" is not a more serious book than its predecessor; but is is a more deliberate book; and it is also, despite its title, a far less hopeful one.

Its theme, of course, is in that title, but the words must be given an inflection quietly skeptical. For this new novel is a study, sympathetic yet disturbingly ironic, of that strange and straining habit called hope….

Hope and poverty—these are the important things. Yet it is hardly just to suggest of a work so rich in detail, so fully and warmly concretized, that its matter may be adequately wrapped up in a pair of large abstractions. Because really it is not poverty which is here presented, but a group of aching, breathing, enduring human beings. It is not hope, but a set of generations who must daily feel, in the long passage of their lives, that happiness is due on the next delivery.

Looking forward to something better is the necessary narcotic of these people against the present empty or agonizing moment….

There is no high tension or shaking excitement in [the] events; yet they have a strong, compulsive effect, because they involve characters made remarkably real….

These characters and their very lives are projected with fidelity. The book makes no suggestions, answers no questions, proposes no solutions. Its intention is direct and difficult—to project, honestly and immediately, a moving image of experience. And in that purpose it memorably succeeds.

Richard Sullivan, "Brooklyn, Where the Tree Grew," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1948 by The New York Times Company; copyright renewed © 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 22, 1948, p. 1.