Warning: This is not an ordinary review. Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse takes place between 1900 and 1960 in small-town Minnesota and centers primarily on the lives of a strong, independent woman--Nell, a widowed English teacher--and her son, Hilly. Some of the novel consists of letters.
Dear Faith Sullivan:
What a breath of fresh air your writing is in Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse. As an avid reader, English teacher, and a writer, I love that one of its main premises is homage to the power of books and to the importance of the written word. Upon her retirement from teaching, Nell reflects, “ the years could rob them [her former students and protégées] of friends and farms, of youth and health, but books would endure.”
Let me explain your novel’s impact. You almost made me want to live in a small town, something I’ve never wanted to do. You painted Harvester, Minnesota, just as I expected a small town to be: neighborly, gossipy, ugly at times, but a real community. People care for one another. The townspeople are not jaded; they have a deep reliance on friendship as well as family, and they still appreciate small treasures.
I believe most readers are looking for writers who can help guide them through this complicated life. You almost made me love Wodehouse, as did Nell and as, apparently, do you. As your character Nell explains, “On her most anxious days, Wodehouse became a place… What a pity she couldn’t spend all her hours with her nose in his books.” I prefer your characters, more relatable, soothing, and yes, instructive, for me than his.
You taught me about shellshock in soldiers as a result of WWI, about which I knew almost nothing. We seldom hear, see, or read of such devastating results of war as the ones in your novel. Hilly is a marvelous character and I now see, dipping into your earlier novels, that he’s been around before.
Other highlights of your book are your broad and carefully chosen vocabulary, your understanding of history, especially of women’s place--or lack of place--in it, and all your strong characters. They are committed people believing in the life they lead. Nell in particular is such a solid, admirable woman, taking charge of whatever comes along. She does not let people down; thankfully, she has others to soothe her when she needs and is often able to fill in human losses in her life. I appreciated that your characters held fast to their values: helpfulness, truth, sharing, belief in heroes, courage.
The only character that disappointed me was Elvira. She seemed so loving of Hilly, so grateful for a second chance at family and for Nell’s help and mentoring. For her to want to move to a city, to see more of the world, is perfectly understandable. Towns like Harvester are not for everyone. However, Elvira’s development did not seem to ring true.
Although your narrative may look deceptively simple at first read, of course, it is not at all. This novel’s language and emotions are pared down, more spare than in your earlier novels. Yet, at its core, it’s about real life lived in an adult way, about the gains and losses that we all experience.
Your work is vaguely reminiscent of other women authors I appreciate: Margaret Lawrence, some Mary Lawson. They too write lovingly, if at times exasperatedly, about small-town life, the prairies, and their characters accepting limited options.
I doubt all young women (or men) readers would like your work; it’s not sexy or dangerous enough. Yes, terrible things happen throughout the book, but they are on a human scale, not as they are in many modern books and films, with dazzling special effects and unlikely, even destructive, relationships.
However, when I taught college students, some of those very same young women--and men--especially in their early to mid-20s, yearned for community and committed relationships, so who knows? They, too, are looking for literary role models.
Thank you for your good, wise work. I look forward to more of it.