Tightly packed with detail and characters as well as incident, From the Terrace chronicles roughly the first fifty years in the life of Raymond Alfred Eaton, known as Alfred, born during 1897 in the small mill town of Port Johnson, Pennsylvania. Throughout more than eight hundred pages of frequently dense narrative, O’Hara sifts through the various data of Alfred’s life, loves, friendships, and often brilliant career, attempting thus to account for Alfred’s rapid rise in the business world and his even more precipitous fall. When the novel ends, shortly before Alfred’s fiftieth birthday, he is shown leading a life of enforced idleness, his power and status irretrievably behind him.
The novel begins with an extended portrait of Alfred’s father, Samuel Eaton, supplemented by a description of the town of Port Johnson and culminating in an evocation of the town-wide revelry that greeted the birth in 1894 of William Eaton, Samuel and Martha Eaton’s first child. The birth of a second son some three years later passes virtually unnoticed until 1908, when William Eaton dies of meningitis. Alfred, accustomed to living in his brother’s shadow, is at first unprepared for the attention that he will receive as the surviving son of the town’s most prominent family. His father’s attention, however, will forever be denied him, reserved for William in death as in life.
William’s death, perhaps the first major trauma in Alfred’s young life, will soon be followed by others, all of which remain lodged in his memory. Shortly before he enrolls at Princeton, his girlfriend is killed in a senseless motor accident for which Alfred will assume responsibility in his own mind, although he was not even in the car. Seduced soon thereafter by Norma Budd, a family friend some seven years his senior, Alfred will also feel responsible for Norma’s subsequent misadventures and her death, several years later, at the hands of a suicidal married lover.
Alfred’s life, meanwhile, proceeds without much external incident. His career at Princeton is cut short by American involvement in World War I; commissioned in the Navy, he serves with some distinction, deciding thereafter not to return to Princeton. As the unnoticed second son of Samuel Eaton, Alfred was never groomed for management in the steel mill, nor has he ever wished to work there; it is hardly surprising, therefore, that he refuses his father’s halfhearted job offer, choosing instead to start an aircraft company in partnership with his Princeton friend, Lex Thornton. It...
(The entire section is 1046 words.)