THE SCARLET LETTERS

Louis Auchincloss, Author . Houghton Mifflin $24 (177p) ISBN 978-0-618-34159-7

Auchincloss's latest novel takes place in familiar territory—the world of the privileged classes in 1950s New York—and acquires extra resonance from its mirroring of Hawthorne's famous tale of guilt and redemption. The story opens with a scandal: respected New York lawyer Ambrose Vollard is shocked by the flagrant adultery of his favored son-in-law and heir apparent, Rod Jessup. The author then explores Vollard's rise from ignored son to head of his beloved law firm; his marriage to Hetty, the intelligent daughter of a Boston preacher; his indulgence of his favorite daughter Lavinia; and her relationship to the somewhat puritanical Rod, who is troubled by ghosts of the past, personified in the more hedonistic Harry Hammersly, his best friend and colleague at Vollard's law firm. When Vinnie and Rod divorce and she quickly marries Harry, the story—the battle between a too-strict moralism and a cynical disregard for right and wrong—is only beginning. Auchincloss's writing, which can seem somewhat old-fashioned and burdened with authorial exegesis rather than demonstration of character, makes perfect sense in the context of this near-allegorical morality tale, and readers are rewarded with an embellishment of the simple dichotomies of Hawthorne's novel with an appropriately ambiguous ending. The 1950s context allows the scenes of spiritual, sexual and legal corruption to have an impact they might not in a modern setting, and while the author makes apparent the force of personal history justifying each character's actions, it is always clear who the good guys and bad guys really are. This is a satisfying and sometimes surprising story from a past master of New York tales. (Nov. 5)

Forecast: Readers should not be put off by the fact that this is an expansion of a short story from 2002's Manhattan Monologues—it stands on its own as one of Auchincloss's most engrossing novels.

Reviewed on: 09/29/2003
Release date: 11/01/2003
Genre: Fiction
Open Ebook - 192 pages - 978-0-547-63052-6
Hardcover - 207 pages - 978-1-58547-410-3
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