Being a newly minted university graduate with a B.A. in English, I’ve stomached enough literary theory and incomprehensible postmodern fiction for the foreseeable future. During these lazy months where my future career is still a glaring question mark, I’ve lapsed back to my old reading modus operandi: charming English novels.
The book I just read was The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith. I found it hiding in a shelf at Bell’s Books in Palo Alto, CA a few days before my graduation. Imagine my surprise! I had not known that Dodie Smith wrote books other than I Capture the Castle and The 101 Dalmatians.
The Town in Bloom is divided into three segments. In the first section, three elderly ladies named Mouse, Molly, and Lillian sit down to have lunch and reminisce on their forty-year old friendship. Section two is a long flashback and constitutes the bulk of the novel’s plot. The final section is an epilogue.
The plot of the novel is simple enough. Section two of The Town in Bloom details the exploits of eighteen-year old Mouse, a country girl who aspired to a successful stage career in 1920s London. Along the way, she cultivated close friendships with chorus girls Molly and Lillian, met the wealthy, enigmatic Zelle, and involved herself within the affairs of the Crossway Theatre. The Town in Bloom is a coming-of-age novel, and delved into Mouse’s first foray into love.
Mouse is the linchpin of The Town in Bloom. If you like her, you’d love The Town in Bloom. Yet Mouse is polarizing. One may find her irresistibly charming, others may find her repugnant. I tried to like her, only to be left ambivalent in the end.
In her first big scene, Mouse crashed an audition at the Crossway Theatre: she bluffed the stage door keeper into letting her inside to weasel an audition out of stage manager Brice Marton. Rebuffed but undeterred, Mouse got ahold of the theatre’s actor-manager Rex Crossway and willfully persuaded him to give her a chance.
The scene is Mouse’s character-establishing moment, yet the impression she makes is entirely to your taste. I’m sure Mouse will strike some readers as bold and resourceful, but I found her brashness and rudeness shocking. After Rex Crossway gave her the go ahead to give an impromptu performance,
“I [Mouse] rushed through the pass door and up to the stage. Brice Marton was just coming into the wings. He stared at me [Mouse] and gave a disgusted snort, then said, “Someone will have to lend you a script.”
The girl who had come off the stage with him offered hers. I thanked her politely but said I shouldn’t need it. “And I shan’t need you, either,” I said to Brice Marton, not at all politely, and sailed out to the front of the stage.”
I found Mouse’s comment to Marton unnecessary as he was simply doing his job in keeping the auditions going. That short remark soured my impression of her.
Although my response to Mouse is not overwhelmingly positive, I’m first to admit that she is a wonderfully fleshed-out character. She is headstrong, confident, and resourceful; it is astonishing how she is able to jump back with ease after each misstep and catastrophe. At times however, some of Mouse’s behavior was so questionable I began labeling her as dishonest. I also wondered if her inhuman ability to bounce back from troubles is tied to her greatest personal failing: she never learns from her mistakes. Mouse’s choices at the end of The Town in Bloom’s second section only magnified those suspicions.
Despite all the attention on Mouse, the novel’s supporting characters were also well constructed. Mouse’s friends Molly, Lillian, and Zelle were given good subplots of their own. But Rex Crossway charmed me the most. He may not have magnetism but he melted my heart with his generosity and kindness. As the plot advanced and he and Mouse plunge into an affair, his character became more unsavory but Rex never lost his charm. It’s a point of debate whether the much older Rex was taking advantage of Mouse. Yet Smith made a point of Mouse’s assertiveness in the affair. Mouse may be many things, but a victim she was not.
Technically speaking, The Town in Bloom is not an action-packed novel. Yet I never found the pace slow. The narrative zips along and The Town in Bloom was a pretty quick read. Some scenes are just lovely! A tiff between Molly and her fiancé close to the end of section two will have you laughing. Dodie Smith was a playwright before she became a novelist and it shows. Her light touch reminded me of comic scenes at the theatre.
The Town in Bloom is not without its charms. In fact, if I liked Mouse more I would have found this novel exceedingly lovely.