The Prodigal Women: A Novel
by Nancy Hale
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Pub Date 09 May 2023 | Archive Date Not set
As seen in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW and VANITY FAIR
Set in Boston, New York, and Virginia, The Prodigal Women tells the intertwined stories of three young women who come of age in the Roaring Twenties, not flappers and golden girls but flesh-and-blood female protagonists looking wearily—and warily—at the paths open to women in a rapidly changing world.
Leda March, “frantic with self-consciousness and envy and desire,” is the daughter of poorer relations of a prominent Boston family and an aspiring poet torn between an impulse to conformity and the pursuit of personal freedom. Betsy Jekyll, newly arrived with her family from Virginia, becomes Leda’s closest childhood friend, bringing a beguiling new warmth and openness into the New Englander’s life. But Betsy soon abandons Boston to land a job at a fashion magazine and enjoy life as a single woman in New York before falling in love with—and marrying—an abusive, controlling man. Betsy’s older sister, Maizie, a Southern belle idolized by the two younger friends and pursued by numerous men, grows tired of “running around” and fatefully looks for happiness in marriage to a turbulent artist.
When The Prodigal Women was published in 1942, its uncompromising portrayal of women’s shifting roles, open sexuality, and ambivalence toward motherhood made it a succèss de scandale, spending twenty-three weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Now Library of America restores Nancy Hale’s lost classic to print with a new introduction by Kate Bolick exploring how the novel measures “the gap between what liberation looks like, and what it actually is.”
Praise for WHERE THE LIGHT FALLS: Selected Stories of Nancy Hale:
“Hale is our next Lucia Berlin. . . . In these 25 arresting stories, [she] writes about complex women who live quiet lives of confusion and desperation, locating the hugeness of human feeling with the minutiae of domestic life. Perceptive and luscious, these stories are unmissable.” —Esquire (“The Best Fall Books of 2019”)
“Every sentence pulses with energy and specificity. . . . Hale's stories are rich, delightful, and often strange. And they nearly always end abruptly, as if on an inhale, preparing you for whatever comes next.” —The Paris Review (Staff Pick)
“A stunning, crystalline collection. . . . Hale writes with a crisp realism that is almost deceptive in its simplicity; the power of her prose sneaks up on you.” —Vogue (“The 17 Books We Can't Wait to Read This Fall”)
“Skillfully introduced and selected by Lauren Groff, . . . Hale’s insightful, artfully constructed stories remain irresistible—and relevant—today.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“A welcome reintroduction. . . . Classic examples of the art of short fiction, capturing the variety of human experience with sophisticated economy.” —Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“In a just world, Nancy Hale would need no introduction. Her name would be soaked into the American book consciousness as thoroughly as those of her contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe." — Garden & Gun
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 11 members
I had never heard of Nancy Hale or this book and I thought I had a fairly extensive knowledge of literature. I was mistaken. How I ever missed this one I can not imagine, I am only glad to have found it now.
Though this book is pretty long I enjoyed every minute and every page. This is a raw, concise portrayal of 3 women's lives at the beginning of the century through the Jazz Age.
Hale shows a vivid portrait of what it was like to be a female, growing up and coming of age in a time where men ruled. She shows the disparities between men and women and of the social classes. I applaud Nancy Hale for her courage and bravery in writing this book when she did, crossing invisible boundaries of what was acceptable and what wasn't, and daring to speak of such taboo topics like abortion, infidelity, pre-marital sex, women's rights, etc. Groundbreaking when it was first published it is still relevant today. I recommend highly to anyone as long as you don't let the length deter you, it is a vivid look at the life of a woman in the early 1900s.
Thank you to the Library of America and to Net Galley for the free ARC, I am leaving my honest review voluntarily in return.
A compelling story of the lives of a group of women spanning three decades, The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale showcases the disparities between the lives of men and women in the early part of the 20th century. Set primarily in Boston in the 1910-1930s, the plot focuses on the turbulent lives of sisters, Maizie and Betsy Jekyll, and fellow Bostonian, Leda March. Beginning when they are teens and advancing through their early adulthood, the essence of Prodigal Women becomes their stormy relationships with family, friends, and men and the lengths they will go to get the life they want. As they encounter new found freedoms of the changing culture they are still held hostage by the old restrictions of society. Plot points that include infidelity, abortion, dysfunctional families, and toxic relationships are all on display in this novel.
I had no prior knowledge of this book before requesting it on NetGalley. It was purely the cover art that drew me in. However, I'm glad I picked this one up and gave it a go. While not being exactly enjoyable in the classic sense of the word seeing as how heavy the subject matter is, Prodigal Women was a compelling read and I had trouble putting down the book once I began. The peek into these women's emotions and reasonings behind the decisions they made was fascinating. I just simply can't imagine going through the traumas they experienced. The writing relies heavily on long passages of thoughts and feelings of the characters and "behind the scenes" looks into their lives to move the story along. Dialogue or any first hand action can be sparse at times. The book is quite hefty with this edition coming in at 875 pages. However, the prose is easily readable so it does move somewhat quickly. The sheer length of the novel was really the only reason I chose to give this a 4-star as I think it may deter some readers.
Overall, this was a engrossing look into women's lives in the Roaring Twenties and beyond and how the changes in society that they faced have also changed our present lives. I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher, Library of America, in exchange for and honest review.
I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.
Nancy Hale was a best-selling author in the 1930s and 40s whose work is enjoying a recent revival. A book of short-stories, Where the Light Falls, was released in 2019, edited by Lauren Groff. And now, her most celebrated novel, The Prodigal Women, has been re-released by The Library of America. The book’s introduction, written by Kate Bolick, was recently featured as an essay in the New York Times.
The Prodigal Women is a tremendous novel. Set aside time to read it, as the print length is ~875 pages. The time will be well spent.
The book immerses the reader in the lives of three women, all growing from girlhood to womanhood in stuffy Boston during the Jazz Age. It is a time when social mores are changing and opportunities are opening up for young women. We may picture flappers and suffragists and good times for all (until the Crash), but this deeply psychological novel shows just how simplistic that image is. These women are unmoored.
Leda March is a poor cousin in an old-money, established Boston family. A childhood of insecurity and unpopularity leaves her with a need for social power, for respectability. She tries to sacrifice an unsuitable love for the stability of marriage with her staid older cousin, but she is stifled by boredom when she is with him.
Betsy Jekyll is the second daughter in a social-climbing Virginia family who transplant themselves to Boston. Full of light and joy as a child, Betsy latches onto Leda, who is equally pleased to finally have a friend. Betsy’s chaotic, fun-filled family seems a refuge to Leda. But the two grow apart as they reach “debutante” age. After a failed love affair, Betsy escapes Boston’s strictures by moving to New York where she works for a fashion magazine, then turns to modeling, and then to essentially living off men – with all that implies.
Maize is Betsy’s older sister. A southerner at heart, Maize never quite recovers from the family move to Boston. She is a renowned beauty and accomplished flirt, but the only Boston man who interests her is a self-centered artist, who marries her under duress. Maize’s love is a desperate, all-consuming one. Her eventual descent into mental illness was precipitated by this obsession, but it is just as likely that the mental illness was behind her obsession.
The lives of these women are fascinating. But their misery is palpable. Is this frantic unhappiness a product of the times? The novel is set in the 1920 and 30s. Hale, who wrote this as a contemporary novel and not a historical one, fills the pages with realistic depictions of life in that era. Although many of the conversations seem stilted to a modern reader, they serve to remove the reader from today and place her squarely in that century-ago age.
This hardly seems a feminist novel, but it is a reminder to us of how much we owe to those women who challenged tradition and pushed for the progress that we now can enjoy without the psychological toll – for the most part. This book can also be seen as a cautionary tale to those who would shove women back into Victorian roles. The men are all miserable too.
"Rediscover the sensational 1942 bestseller that unveiled the Jazz Age as women lived it.
Ranging from posh Beacon Hill to go-go New York City to stately Virginia, a sweeping coming-of-age story of three women's lives, loves, and ambitions in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.
Set in Boston, New York, and Virginia, The Prodigal Women tells the intertwined stories of three young women who come of age in the Roaring Twenties, not flappers and golden girls but flesh-and-blood female protagonists looking wearily - and warily - at the paths open to women in a rapidly changing world.
Leda March, "frantic with self-consciousness and envy and desire," is the daughter of poorer relations of a prominent Boston family and an aspiring poet torn between an impulse to conformity and the pursuit of personal freedom. Betsy Jekyll, newly arrived with her family from Virginia, becomes Leda's closest childhood friend, bringing a beguiling new warmth and openness into the New Englander's life. But Betsy soon abandons Boston to land a job at a fashion magazine and enjoy life as a single woman in New York before falling in love with - and marrying - an abusive, controlling man. Betsy's older sister, Maizie, a Southern belle idolized by the two younger friends and pursued by numerous men, grows tired of "running around" and fatefully looks for happiness in marriage to a turbulent artist.
When The Prodigal Women was published in 1942, its uncompromising portrayal of women's shifting roles, open sexuality, and ambivalence toward motherhood made it a succèss de scandale, spending twenty-three weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Now Library of America restores Nancy Hale's lost classic to print with a new introduction by Kate Bolick exploring how the novel measures "the gap between what liberation looks like, and what it actually is.""
A look at the truth of the Jazz Age as written at the time and restored to us by Library of America.
An uncompromising literary portrait of the interior lives of women, The Prodigal Women was an explosive hit when published in 1942, the scent of scandal propelling it to the bestseller list. It tells the intertwined stories of Leda March, a lonely New England schoolgirl, and Betsy and Maizie Jekyll, daughters of a transplanted Virginia clan who upend Boston society, tracing their friendship from adolescence into adulthood, through childhood bullying, a string of abusive marriages, dangerous liaisons, botched abortions, and feminist awakenings, with Leda ultimately turning her back on love and desire and embracing her own mysterious inner strength.
Fascinating and gripping, The Prodigal Women was a crucial influence on such later works as Mary McCarthy’s The Group and Jacqueline Susann‘s Valley of the Dolls, and it remains powerfully.
Such a well-written story. She talks about the topics that were considered taboo in that era. I will recommend this to others.
This 1942 bestseller is an ambitious saga about three young women and their search for love, acceptance, and success. At 800+ pages, it is ridiculously long and yet, it kept my attention. The length also feels like a bold statement: that Hale believes the experiences of young women are worthy of serious treatment. The book is set in the 1920s and 1930s and follows Leda March and sisters Maizie and Betsy Jekyll as they grow from young girls into young women into wives and mothers. It reinforces how many of the challenges women face have not changed: men can still be brutes, women's sexuality is punished, and every choice comes at a cost. All three women are complicated and whether any of them gets a "happy ending' is up for debate. I especially enjoyed some of the NYC scenes where one character goes to work. A book worthy of rediscovery, in spite of its length and the racist portrayals of what few characters of colour appear.
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