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. Without a second thought, I picked up the book and purchased it. My delight was doubled when I found out that it was on sale.
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 aspiring to a successful stage career in 1920s London. Along the way, she cultivates close friendships with chorus girls Molly and Lillian, meets the wealthy, enigmatic Zelle, and involves herself within the affairs of the Crossway Theatre. The Town in Bloom is essentially a coming-of-age novel, so it is no surprise that Smith also delved into Mouse’s first foray into love.
Mouse is without a doubt the linchpin of The Town in Bloom. If you grow to like her, you’d love The Town in Bloom. Yet Mouse is like perfume, she develops differently on different skin. One may find her irresistibly charming, one may find her repugnant. One, like me, spent long whiffs trying to like her only to be left ambivalent in the end. For this reason, I’m not sure if I can recommend The Town in Bloom. I have no idea how a reader would respond to Mouse.
In her first big scene, Mouse crashes an audition at the Crossway Theatre: she bluffs the stage door keeper into letting her inside and tries to weasel an audition out of stage manager Brice Marton. Rebuffed but undeterred, Mouse gets ahold of the theatre’s actor-manager Rex Crossway and willfully persuades him to give her a chance.
This scene is Mouse’s character establishing moment. Yet how her character is read is entirely to your taste. I’m sure Mouse will strike some readers as bold and resourceful. I, however, found Mouse’s 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 am 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 were so questionable I began labelling 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 my suspicions that she never learns.
Despite all the attention on Mouse, the novel’s supporting characters are also well-constructed. Mouse’s friends Molly, Lillian, and Zelle are 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 advances and he and Mouse plunge into an affair, his character becomes more unsavory but Rex never loses his sweetness. It is a point of debate whether the much older Rex is taking advantage of Mouse. Yet Smith made a point of Mouse’s assertiveness in this 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 actually a pretty quick read. And some scenes are just lovely! A tiff between Molly and her fiancée 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 reminds me of theatre comic scenes.
The Town in Bloom is certainly not without its charms. In fact, if I liked Mouse more I would have found this novel exceedingly lovely. The Town in Bloom won’t make it into my list of favorites but I definitely did not regret reading it. And I’m always happy to add a previously out-of-print book into my collection.