BUtterfield 8 by John O’Hara

20 June, 2011

I am stunned. Stunned that this book is so unflinching, honest, visceral and that it was published in the 1930s. I watched the film starring Elizabeth Taylor for which she won an Oscar many years ago and recall being taken aback at the raciness in the film. It’s black and white and I’d always assumed those films never had any sex in them. Boy was I wrong.

It’s timely that I started reading BUtterfield 8 by John O’Hara straight after finishing Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast set during the same era but in Paris. They speak of the same people, the Depression, the bright young things and cocktails and speakeasys and O’Hara even mentions one of Hemingway’s books. I think what really struck me was that BUtterfield 8 is a contemporary book and I can only imagine how shocking it must have been when it was first published. The frankness with which O’Hara discusses sex and the problems with sex from the women’s point of view is refreshing. But then there’s also sexual abuse, paedophilia, rape. What comes across is how modern this novel is. How modern O’Hara’s interpretation is of the reasons and results of people’s actions because of what has gone on before.

Part of the reason why I felt this book resonated is that I really liked the character of Gloria Wandrous. What a wonderful name. She’s flawed, impetuous and contrary, yet there is a softness at her core that you can’t help caring about. She reminded me a little of Holly Golightly, the iconic hero of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, lost yet looking for love. Although I was surprised at the freedom Gloria experienced, going out, staying out all night, O’Hara’s story isn’t just about her, but also about marriage and expectations and there are enough characters to show a spectrum of lives amongst the privileged. It’s the Depression, so they may be out of pocket, but they are far removed from the characters populating Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side in Depression-era New Orleans.

I was very unimpressed with the character of Gloria’s lover, married Mr. Weston Liggett. I couldn’t understand what she saw in him and thought he was much creepier than creepy old Dr. Reddington. In fact, I don’t think she knew what she saw in him either. However, I really liked her friend Eddie Brunner, a young illustrator living off pennies but ever optimistic, just like the other Yale and Princeton boys so reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s crowd.

This book was chosen by Claire for our book group and I’m really glad she did. It also provided a very interesting discussion at book group with a whole spectrum of opinions where I gave my first 9/10 score. Yes, I loved it that much. And check out Polly and Kim’s posts to see what they thought of the book.

BUtterfield 8 has been on my radar for many years and I’m glad there’s been enough years in between watching the film and reading it to make this a surprisingly shocking read for me. Especially since Gloria Wandrous is based on a real person. But don’t go and google Starr Faithful until you’ve read the book! If you want something along the lines of Hemingway and Fitzgerald but with no holds barred, give O’Hara’s novel a go. I’m definitely interested in reading more.

12 Responses to “BUtterfield 8 by John O’Hara”

  1. You should read ‘Appointment in Samara’ also really good, and Vintage have two more titles coming out next month. Can’t wait! I loved this book for all the reasons you described, I was definitely shocked by it, but also couldn’t help but warm to Gloria. Interesting that O’Hara was so unflinching about showing his men at their worst.

    • sakura Says:

      It’s good to hear that Hayley as I hadn’t heard of ‘Appointment to Samara’ prior to reading this one and I don’t think I know anyone who’s read it either. I do want to read more by O’Hara. It probably comes from his work as a journalist that he doesn’t shy away from showing people in their true colours.

  2. never read O’Hara might have to look in the library for some

  3. Mystica Says:

    Thanks for this introduction to something totally new to me! Keeping a look out for this one.

  4. amymckie Says:

    Hmmm I have an O’Hara novel on my tbr, you’ve just reminded me 🙂 I think I may have left it at my parents house in the last move though… this sounds fantastic though!

  5. savidgereads Says:

    I think this might be heading my way in the post via Kim and am thrilled as, though I sadly miss book group now, I will be able to catch up with a book that seems to have really gotten you all talking. Am sad I wasnt there but its been wonderful hearing all your thoughts.

  6. Pursewarden Says:

    OK, Sakura, you’ve persuaded me!

  7. Nymeth Says:

    Wow, I had actually never heard of this novel before! It sounds like a wonderful read, and it’s going on my wishlist straight away.

  8. novelinsights Says:

    Great review, book nicely distilled! So glad we read this one 🙂

  9. sakura Says:

    Thanks for you lovely comments! I do hope that you all do get a chance to read him. And also discuss this book as we found that opinions altered with our book group discussion!

  10. Ah, all the comments are heartwarming. I’m really glad I chose this one and that the book has grown on me once the frustration died!

  11. Julia Says:

    My book group just read this book, Most thought except 2 that Gloria killed herself. I was one of the opinion that she did not. Any thoughts from anyone about this; accident or sucide?

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