The political novel, a once respected genre produced with sophistication and style by such writers as Bulwer-Lytton and Anthony Trollope, has in recent decades become almost exclusively the province of the hacks, who churn out massive volumes in which potential disasters and personality guessing games take precedence over any feeble attempts to explore the real nature of power or the consequences of power on the human personality. Perhaps because she came to fiction-writing late in life, and perhaps because she is a wise and gifted individual, Abigail McCarthy has written one of the finest political novels to appear in many years. As the wife of a former United States senator and presidential candidate, Mrs. McCarthy had the opportunity to observe the national political scene in a way few authors outside of politics can hope to. (This may also be why so many political novels are written by reporters, rather than by experienced novelists.) But what she made of this material can only be the product of her own special sensibility and talent. In Circles: A Washington Story, McCarthy is first a novelist and secondly a social commentator.
Many readers will, no doubt, enjoy Circles: A Washington Story because of its insider’s point of view and its shrewd observations and comments about the most minute aspects of political and social life in Washington, but the book offers greater rewards than that. Although the author is brilliant when dealing with the desperation inherent in Washington social circles, she is equally sharp when writing of the changes which have taken place in Washington over the years, from decade to decade, administration to administration, election to election, crisis to crisis. The changing styles of social form and political ambition are all clearly delineated with the economy of words of a skilled craftsman. McCarthy’s observations—or those of her characters—about the factors which make or break politicians ring true. This is not a book of scandalous revelations, but it is one which only a person who has spent years on the scene could have written. One feels certain that this picture presents Washington as it is.
But, more than merely satisfying the reader’s curiosity about the workings of national government and the secrets of power-trading, Circles offers an intelligent woman’s concern with moral issues that go beyond political games to the profound concerns of all human beings. McCarthy probes old suppositions, stereotyped opinions, and irrational but stubborn myths. In the pages of Circles, the values and moral righteousness of Western materialism are confronted by a shrewd mind and unjaded moral sense.
The narrative is refracted through the points of view of several characters. Although the story is of Senator Sam Nordahl’s attempt to win the presidential nomination, he actually is not the central character, except in that his personality acts as both a catalyst and a mirror for the other characters who revolve around him. The men and women surrounding Nordahl see what they want to see—what they must see—in his handsome, bland features. The press representatives, the other politicians, and his wife, all find themselves confronting new visions of themselves, as well as of their candidate. This gradual stripping of layers is what this fine novel is all about.
The story is framed by the reflections of Laura Talbert, a genteel lady of the old school, a woman who has spent most of her life in Washington, part of the inner circle for decades, but now gradually receding into the background. Rather wistfully, Mrs. Talbert ponders her fate, the fate of many a Washington widow. She is not bitter about the outcome of her life, but she wonders just what it all has meant. There have been undeniable satisfactions, but at times she is inclined to wonder what her destiny might have been if she had chosen a different, more aggressive, pattern for her life, one not so much in the shadow of her husband. For it is a fact that any small influence that she had, any brief power or long-lasting respect that she achieved, was due to her primarily as the wife of a man who possessed power and commanded respect. The situation of Laura Talbert reflects but one aspect of the position of women in Washington circles. Gradually, with infinite subtlety, McCarthy exposes additional layers of...
(The entire section is 1792 words.)