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Saturday, July 8th, 2006
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One Sunday Morning: A Novel

by Amy Ephron

Thoroughly Modern Amy

A review by Georgie Lewis

One Sunday Morning is a slip of a book, elegantly packaged and as pleasurable to drink in on a summer afternoon as a lemony Tanqueray and tonic. Set in the Jazz age in prohibition-era New York and then moving on to France, the story is pinned on a deceptively simple premise. Four women at a bridge party see the beautiful unmarried Lizzie Carswell leaving a hotel with Billy Holmes, who is engaged to marry their good friend Clara Hart. Assumptions are made, along with promises not to mention it again. While no one admits to it, word does get out and Lizzie is spurned at the opera the next evening. Added to this stage-piece of manners is a sudden death; a young man is found dead in the river -- is it someone they know?

As you would expect with these shades of Fitzgerald and Wharton, appearances will be deceiving, and the consequences of being socially ostracized inevitably bitter. (Ephron would be the first to admit her influences; it is The Great Gatsby that Mary Bell reads on her ocean voyage to France, while France was the country in which Wharton chose to live most of her adult life.) But while the novel has a moral message of sorts, and certainly not a happy ending, it also provides intrigue and a genuine sense of suspense.

It says something about Ephron's elegant style that One Sunday Morning has a breeziness and understated impact which belies its quiet truth. Standing at 213 small pages (chapters are only couple of pages long and the book has large margins) One Sunday Morning can be virtually inhaled in a few hours. Its prose is light as air, silkily transparent like the wispy chiffon of the flapper's dresses. Look closer, however, and you shall see there is a lot going on for its brevity. Ephron is only revealing as much as she has to while still producing a compelling storyline.

Take this short passage, where Ephron captures the details of a fashionable twenties wardrobe while deftly revealing something of the emotional nature of these young women and men:

She wasn't pretty. No, no one would ever say that she was pretty. But she was striking and Billy's taste, because they all assumed that it was Billy who picked her clothes, was impeccable. Billy was drinking scotch even though it was four in the afternoon, and Clara was nursing a gin and tonic. She had a Piaget watch on her right wrist that Billy had picked up for her at an antique store. It had a simple black band and a plain gold rim around its face so that the numbers themselves were the set-piece, distinctly Piaget. Billy's suit was appropriately wrinkled. It occurred to Mary that they fit into Paris in a way she never would.

This is my first foray into Amy Ephron territory, and it was a lovely, quiet experience, thoroughly engrossing and a few hours well spent. I must admit that I'm now itching to go back and reread some of Ephron's literary forebears now -- Maugham, Forster, and the aforementioned Wharton and Fitzgerald -- for a somewhat fuller or longer story, for I did find myself slightly dissatisfied with the somewhat hasty close. The entwined plotlines were indeed resolved but I thought there were a couple of characters and subplots which were underused.

However, Ephron is a skilled and graceful writer and if I am critical here it is for want of more from her. She has a delicacy of touch and a restraint which I find so satisfying to read. One character muses the following at the end of a love affair:

She was popular. But part of why she was popular was because she was available, sometimes an afterthought or a stand-in. She had to admit, she'd had a fantasy. And the fantasy went like this, that someone would love her and she would be the one who was giving the party.

Beautiful moments like this are found frequently here.


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