Reading A TIME TO BE BORN and A WICKED PAVILLION by Dawn Powell back to back was a more rewarding experience than reading them some time apart as the novels share a few characters and themes although they frame their stories using different techniques.
A TIME TO BE BORN focuses on Amanda Keeler, a fictionalized version of Clare Booth Luce, who relies on an army of ghostwriters to produce the books and articles she claims as her own, a byproduct of her marriage to the wealthy, connected publisher Julian Evans.
When Amanda agrees to help Vicky Haven a friend from the Ohio hometown she just as soon forget get on her feet in New York City in order to arrange meetings with her lover using the studio her friend is staying in, it sets in motion a chain of events that completely changes everyone’s life.
Amada is the single most fleshed character I’ve come across in Powell’s writing so far (Her monumental unpleasantness offset by her near total cluelessness and self-centeredness) and this book rivals ANGELS ON TOAST as my favorite. I had a feeling of completeness, that the balance in her work between pungent social criticism and screwball humor was a little more weighted on the social criticism side.
THE WICKED PAVILLION on the other hand is pure screwball comedy delivered at a frantic pace. It is perhaps the lightest book tone wise I’ve read by her so far but contains some great humorous passages and clever zinging wordplay. The effect is like a song by the band Squeeze translated into novel length.
The Café Julien is the setting for three main stories which overlap and get involved in even more complex twists. 1.) Two starving artists seek to masquerade their work as their dead friend’s who has suddenly become very popular among collectors and the general public 2.) Rick Prescott and his star-crossed love affair with Elenora Carsdale 3.)Two women on the edge of society, the socially obtuse aging dowager Elsie Hookley and the promiscuous party girl Jerry Dulaine both running low on funds, plan and scheme to better their circumstances.
THE WICKED PAVILLION does a fabulous job of creating a starting off point for wild frenzied adventures, coincidental meetings, strange connections, wild plot developments. The characters even the minor ones are well drawn. We know their weaknesses and why they act the way they do. There is also a well done twist towards the end of the book regarding the artist storyline.
If the impatience to get the story out bothers one (it doesn’t bother me as I feel it gives Powell’s work tremendous energy), A TIME TO BE BORN might be the starting point for reading Dawn Powell. If you want to jump into a frenzied screwball narrative than THE WICKED PAVILLION might be the book for you.
Here are some links to my prior writings on the works of Dawn Powell.