Friday, November 05, 2010

Mary Roberts Rinehart: The Street of Seven Stars

Oh this was disappointing sentimental tosh. Not without it's sweet moments, but oh no no. And it's not even crime fiction, to atone for it.

It's a story about two Americans who meet in Vienna at around the time of the start of WW1. She is a naive young girl with a wonderful musical talent for the violin, he is about ten years older, a doctor who has come to study surgery. They are both poor and struggling to pay for their lessons. Peter is a goodhearted character who tends to pick up "strays", and of course Harmony becomes one of his worries. All the bad things that can happen to a young innocent girl etc. Peter is contrasted with his colleague, Stewart, who has set up a home with a Austrian woman - possibly former prostitute - that he doesn't even care about. It's just handy, because it's cheaper than a Pension. When Peter, Harmony and another doctor, a middle-aged American woman, leave their Pension to economize by living together, the potential for scandal-mongering in the small American community weighs heavily on them, and things come to a head when Anna Gates leaves them to go to her sick father back home. Respectability is threatened, but they have to stick together because they've assumed responsability for a little boy with a heart disease.

Rinehart was a career woman, who even went to Europe as a war correspondent - quite a feat for a woman in those days. Part of the book touches on this desire that women too have, for a career, for a professional identity. However, one must sell books. It doesn't do to be too radical. Therefore the book ends with Harmony realising she loves Peter and wants to marry him, and she can give up her career, because she'll still have one - his! Excuse me while I throw up in my mouth a little. It's also extremely moralistic, while dabbling gently in the idea that maybe the community gossips should shut up and not assume the worst of people, but let them be instead. Parts of very direct and to the point, but in the end it cowers back into accepting the niceness and conventional morals of Puritan America whole-heartedly.

It's interesting to read a probably rather accurate description of life for poor ex-pat Americans in early 20th century Europe. I also like the very cosmopolitan Viennese society descriped, with people converging in the city from all corners of the Empire. Bosnian soldiers march, Stewarts girlfriend has a Slavic name. It's interesting to see the sympathy she has for this fallen woman, who has to take the blame and the shame for the immoral living arrangements - this is not fair, and it's seen and not seen.

Towards the end the book contains some of the most disgusting racism, when the sick boy's depraved singer mother performs to the Austrian crowds with her imported sidekicks of little black children, referred to as pickaninnies and darkys. Eeeewwww. And at the same time she sings a Negro lullaby, which clearly was seen as moving to the white people reading. Bizarre.

Not recommended, unless possibly for historical, like, research. Quite dull, really.

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