As America emerges from the Depression, the Hatherfords build a comfortable life just outside of New York City, in rural Bergen County, New Jersey. They are a glamorous couple: Vern is the charismatic owner of a successful Ford dealership and his flamboyant wife Maeve is beautiful even in middle age. When their three-year-old son Scott falls prey to polio, and later, another son must go to war, their marriage slowly implodes. In the midst of it all 12-year-old Patsy steals swallows of whiskey and tries to make sense of the world around her, which includes an unusual intimacy between her brother Scott, and Julian, a young African American boy who lives among them.
Neither historical nor medical fiction, The Cure offers the pleasure of both in its richly complex portrayal of the lives and times of its characters. A beautifully written family saga about race, war, childhood illness, and romantic desire, The Cure has at its heart wounding and the struggle for hope.
“A sustained tenderness and rare emotional sympathy for all her characters infuse Varley O’Connor’s latest novel, her best. The Cure is fresh and engaging from first page to last, not least because of the author’s commanding literary skill, her imaginative control of the historic details, and her marvelous feeling for the fragility of family dynamics."
--Phillip Lopate, author of Waterfront
“In this poignant and well-told novel, Varley O’Connor inhabits the fragile lives that unravel in the face of illness and disease. But as with all wonderful writers, this is just the beginning for this tale ripples into one of race and class. Part period piece, part family saga, The Cure is a particularly American story and an achingly beautiful one at that.”
--Mary Morris, author of The River Queen
“Varley O’Connor’s The Cure is a moving, beautifully written, character-driven novel that captures the dangerous intersection between private life and the forces of history and gives the reader that rare pleasure of inhabiting another family life that feels at once entirely familiar and new.”
--Susan Richards Shreve, author of A Student of Living Things and Warm Springs
Bellevue Literary Review’s new trade book list releases its first title, the third novel by O’Connor (A Company of Three). This observant saga centers on the affluent Hatherford family in 1940s Bergen Couty, New Jersey. A WWI vet, Vern operates a thriving Ford dealership. His wife Maeve, though glamorous, seeks constant attention for her polio-like symptoms. Her son Scott also suffers from a crippling case of polio, and his friend Julian is perhaps too caring—a problem complicated when Scott’s kid sister Patsy witnesses one of the boys’ more intimate moments. Dr. Mat Wayne plays family doctor, godparent and therapist to the dysfunctional Hatherfords and falls hard for Maeve. World War Two looms in the background. Rich details about polio and its treatment lend sympathy to characters prone to adultery and drinking. Despite their flaws, the Hatherfords manage to carry on with a gutsy spirit.
THE CURE, Varley O’Connor’s third novel, Bellevue Literary Press, is an ambitious look into the life of a family touched by polio. Beginning with three year old Scott waking up one sticky August morning in 1931 laid low by disease—“listless and cranky” the night before, no other warning of devastation—the story continues through the last throes of World War II.
A child suddenly can’t walk: Poliomyelitis was the AIDS of its era. Rather than gays and the sexually diverse, this virus preyed on kids, paralyzing muscular apparatus, like the diaphragm for lung function, forcing its victims into tortuous-looking iron lungs. FDR comes to mind, or Jerry Lewis: weepy telethons on brand X TV, bad jokes about kids in leg braces, and ubiquitous March of Dimes collection cups by store cash registers. Polio was the scourge until the Salk vaccine was developed in the 1950’s. They made mistakes in the early days of treatment, smothering growing young limbs in plaster casts that did more harm than good. Children were warned not to put pennies in their mouth, to avoid public drinking fountains and pools (summer was the ripe time for contagion), and crowded places—like movie theatres, lest they catch it. Those who did were isolated in hospital wards. Families visited patients through glass windows, contact not allowed, no comforting touch. And then came long years of rehab, often away from home.
This it the story of a clan: mother Maeve, father Vern, Howard, Scott and Patsy Hatherford, along with an assortment of relations and servants. Scott is more or less cured after years of surgeries and muscle transplants, his limbs less withered, his life closer to normal, but the family is not. The story also belongs to its time: America during the war, seen from the perspective of a family that had weathered the Depression and prospered. They live in a New Jersey that is still countrified, the rolling hills of Bergen County situated close to the alluring city: Broadway glitter, Fifth Avenue, jazz and wartime glamour. Vern owns a Ford dealership in Hoboken in the time of Frank Sinatra, the waterfront is industrial working class and a little seedy (the antithesis of hip Hoboken today). Patsy lets her mother know she heard the name Dutch Shultz whispered one night after some shady types showed up to collect one of Daddy’s cars. The sprawling Hatherford acreage in Ridgewood includes an arriviste manse that Vern’s long-suffering beauty of a wife ultimately calls “no place for children”. Scott’s polio becomes the family’s make or break challenge. Life is materially good, but boozy Christmas parties (through to New Years), extravagant shopping sprees, loyal black servants that are like family (seeing to it the real Hatherfords never have to lift a finger for themselves), money enough to buy Scott the best treatment available don’t add up to home.
The stressful undercurrent of war doesn’t help. Twelve year old Patsy is obsessed with war bulletins announced on the radio, and Vern’s wealth can’t get around food and fuel rationing. There are rumors of polio victims like Scott, who can walk, being beaten up for not serving. O’Connor has captured the sound of the times in solidly written dialogue. Words like swell and aw gee, peachy, dandy, and “Dag nab it, Dad, I reckon I am,” from Patsy—the character I was most drawn to—caught drunk one afternoon. She’s been stealing from Vern’s basement office too. To the tune of a thousand dollars, we learn when she offers the loot to her mother after one especially ugly marital row.
Patsy’s been sidelined by Scott’s polio. Left to figure things out pretty much on her own, she hectors her mother for attention and taunts the maid, Vi, to get a rise out of her—code for badly needed emotional focus. Patsy isn’t the only one neglected. Vern’s been involved for years with his brother, Jack Raymond’s wife, Cyd. Jack Raymond is a nice guy, a bit of an innocent, damaged in World War I. Vern is typically selfish nouveau riche; coming up from a hard life in Brooklyn with no advantages, success has made him confident and unquestioning. As Maeve’s bawdy mother Abigail tells her: “‘Pride, power, and sex,’ she preached to Maeve, ‘drive the male of the species.’ ‘You make them sound like we still live in caves,’ said Maeve. ‘Well…’ said Abby, ‘not quite.’” Vern’s a man of appetites, generous, but a block of wood when it comes to sensitivity. Even if Maeve hadn’t been proper and proud, worn out by a son’s ailment, Vern would still have likely had a bit on the side. That the bit is his sister-in-law, that he actually loves his brother and wife (whatever his definition of love is) only serves to complicate the family’s inability to connect.
The children suffer in the souring air surrounding their parents: Dad out late most nights, tipping back gin to get through a night at home, Meave stuck, unable to express herself. She made her son well but can’t seem to win his heart. Usher in Matt Wayne, the family doctor, a character based on the doctor poet William Carlos Williams. It is through him we get the feel of a bygone New Jersey. It is to him Maeve turns, first for Scott, then for Patsy—to see if he can read the girl she has failed and cannot manage, ultimately turning to him for herself. He’s not an obvious choice, bad as his interpersonal skills are beyond the patients he earnestly means to heal. Still, he has insights the Hatherfords are blind to. The breaking point boils when Howard, scheduled for war, goes down in flames, killed in a pilot training accident.
An ensemble of characters moves through these pages, it is hard to settle on one. There is something cinematic in that, a large cast, a sprawling landscape, illness, death, infidelity, a twelve year old drinking to quiet a tender, bruised heart. And I haven’t yet mentioned Vi’s illegitimate son, Julian. A little older than Scott, he became the sick boy’s companion. Julian is gentle and wise for is age. Patsy spies on her brother and Julian—jealously in her aloneness—as they do their homework in Scott’s downstairs bedroom. She sees more than she bargained for when the boys kiss. The taint of homosexually in those days would compete with interracial mixing for poisoned reactions in a white dominated society. (Not much has changed.)
Julian’s affection for Scott, who turns petulant as his body heals and ordinary life comes within reach, is impossible. Rebuffed, Julian “… had expected to smoothly return to the Julian he used to be. But he wasn’t as good as he’d thought, or as staunch. And whoever got a reward for that? Where were the medals for those who never made waves? What did you get for handing your masked self over to people who wrote all the rules and did not even know that you saw?”
If Julian is the wisdom of Varley O’Connor’s insightful novel, Patsy is the conscience. The writer has taken on a lot. Much to be cured: the body and the person. In a way, THE CURE deals with the sickness of America: all the opportunity in the world, even during a war that, once won, would usher in layers of Vern Hatherfords, rolling in success, ‘writing the rules’ without a clue to their own selves. Missing the lesson their son’s disease might have taught, the Hatherfords mixed-up emotions come out as dumb determination and sad obliviousness. I think the truth of O’Connor’s book is that learning to live is the ultimate cure. Selling overpriced cars, shopping, and swilling cocktails at the country club might not be the best route to getting there.
© May 2007 J. Stefan-Cole
Book Check: The Cure/Cauldron Online; University of St. Thomas
Issue date: 5/1/08 Section: A&E
**** out of four stars
Varley O’Connor’s third novel, “The Cure,” is an astute look at a family changed by disease. The book begins with 3-year-old Scott waking one morning in 1931, sick with a fever, but soon, he’s completely devastated by polio, isolated in intensive care with an iron lung and body braces. He recovers eventually, yet is physically impaired. Unfortunately, the damage has spread to the family, tearing and scarring them emotionally.
The war and the depression make evident marks on the family and the novel as a whole. Scott’s siblings, Howard and Patsy, are raised by household help, while the parents, Maeve and Vern, seek emotional validation through extramarital affairs, no longer content with just each other. O’Connor captures perfectly the pure, wide-eyed exploration of youth as she does the complex interplay of a conflicted marriage. When one might normally overlook or misinterpret what characters want to say but cannot, or what they try to veil from one another, the author’s incredibly basic, yet powerful erudition of passion and feeling provides for a clear, clean understanding.
Her imagery is equally strong. She is straightforward about the way she reveals her details, even to the point of using short and choppy sentences to correspond with important, intense descriptions; but, at the same time, she appreciates the little details, which gives it a sense of reality. She does not forget to describe the objects on a table, Maeve’s hair, a character’s home, and so forth—little gems that give the story a feeling of deeper intimacy.
Each individual in the family progressively reveals his or her characters by memory and flashbacks, reflecting on previous actions and their own history, reckoning their faults and qualities or hopes and fears, but all through O’Connor’s objective, omniscient observations. “That’s what people did, carefully built up their lives, their homes over years, over generations, and tore them to pieces,” writes O’Connor, in painfully poignant reflection.
O’Connor seems to have hit upon a perfect balance in her book. The characters seem like true human beings, the descriptive poetry of her writing is entrancing, the openness of her dialogue provides for a simple yet revealing manner of speaking, and her voice is emotional, pure and free. This novel is certainly worth reading for that, if not for the incredible story that goes along with it.