Saturday, March 12, 2016

Crescent Carnival, by Frances Parkinson Keyes

"She was even conscious of a rush of thankfulness that she had found the courage to speak from her soul, at least once, before she was silenced forever."
-- from  Crescent Carnival (130)

Contains spoilers, but seriously, they're mentioned on the book cover.

After reviewing three (very interesting) books in a row that  are collections of anecdotes and experiences -- diary entries, erotic Socratic dialogues, and a collection of short tales and lore -- I found myself with a powerful hankering for narrative. And that was certainly delivered by Crescent Carnival, an 807-page multi-generational saga, originally published in 1942.

From Keyes' New Orleans-set novels, I picked this one for the promise of historical Mardi Gras culture. Its succession of young heroines, spanning the 1890s to the start of World War II, are all expected to become Carnival Queens, and while the situations play out differently in the different time periods, there's enough description of parades and balls to satisfy that expectation.

Along the way, I was surprised and thrilled to find many specific locations in the book that I'm familiar with: the home of the earliest protagonist, Estelle Lenoir, is the building I've toured on Royal Street that now houses the Historic New Orleans Collection. The Sisters of the Holy Family convent, now a hotel where I've stayed twice, plays a role. Plus obvious spots like the cornstalk fence house in the Garden District, the Napoleon House, the St. Louis Cathedral, and an unnamed coffee shop near the Cathedral which might be Cafe du Monde (it could also be the Morning Call).

Starting at a Mardi Gras ball in 1940, the novel flashes back to the star-crossed love between Estelle, a beautiful Creole heiress, and Andrew Breckenridge, a Yankee plantation-owner scandalously involved in the real-life Louisiana State Lottery Company. The sheltered, devoutly Catholic Estelle, barely allowed to leave the house by herself, comes to the brink of defying her family, and the rules of her whole society, for love, but is frightened away by her lover's vehement romantic ultimatums: "If you want to marry me enough, you'll let the whole world crash to pieces without stopping you from doing that" (149).

While this thwarting of narrative expectations, in a novel with all the trappings of romantic fiction, was somewhat frustrating, I did like two aspects of it. First, Estelle is no Scarlett O'Hara, and neither is her daughter, who'll fall into a similarly doomed romance with Andrew's son (unhappily married to a completely incompatible woman, who sort of Carol Kennicotts everyone around her). Everyone can't defy their times, and many people still have difficulties going against the grain of social and familial pressure, and this novel doesn't pretend that most people can.

Secondly, the relative boldness of the young women in the 1940s section (Estelle's granddaughter Stella, and the distantly related Patty) is shown as a function of their time. They've grown up wearing comfortable clothes, driving cars, mixing socially with young men, and because of that lack of constraint, they are freer to make choices about their own lives. That doesn't necessarily make the course of true love run more smoothly, since throughout the book, the biggest obstacle to any couple's happiness is their own mistakes, but it illustrates changes in social attitudes without getting heavy-handed about it.

Slangy, career-oriented Stella is particularly interesting. She scoffs at her grandmother's Downton Abbey-esque view of the changing times -- "Grannie dear ... you keep telling me we've come to the end of an era " (30) -- and when she meets her true love, she can think "How could she resist an embrace which encompassed her so naturally and so inevitably? Why should she?" (522, italics and obvious implication, in the text) But she and her fiancee spend much of the book thwarting their own happiness, due to pride and mutual misunderstanding, just like their ancestors' happiness was thwarted by fears and social conformity.

The couple who bring it all together are a little too good to be true, but by then, SOMEONE deserves a happy ending, so it didn't annoy me too much.

I will warn you, this book was written by a white woman about white Southern culture, in 1942, with all that implies. Characters casually say things like "that's mighty white of you," without anyone thinking it odd, and there are various patronizing depictions of their black servants and plantation laborers. Plus, there's a whole subplot about Huey Long -- his 1935 assassination occurs within the novel --  and the characters we're following, and by extension identifying with, are politically opposed to him. They talk about his dictatorial ways and his stranglehold on the process, which makes this opposition seem perfectly appropriate and democratic. But suddenly, they're all praising an anti-Long speech against some of his legislature: "When this ugly bill is boiled down in its own juices, it disfranchises the white people of Louisiana ... you cannot sell the birthright of another white man" (528).

So it was a tyrant against a bunch of racists. Wow; good times. But not inaccurate, historically.

Fortunately, there are only a few of those "eee" moments, and otherwise, it's an interesting and sprightly period piece. If I get caught up on other things, I'd certainly read some of Keyes' other works -- maybe the other New Orleans saga, Dinner at Antoine's.

Keyes, Frances Parkinson. Crescent Carnival. Boston: Second Line Press, 2014.