Publication Date: 1941
Length: 284 pages
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I don't know why it took me so long to read this book. I have loved the movie my whole life ever since my parents introduced me to Bette Davis, and next to All About Eve, it is my favorite. It never fails to make me cry at the end when she says, "Oh Jerry don't let's ask for the moon....we have the stars!" Melodramatic yes. But I love it.
Maybe I thought the novel would ruin it for me but that was definitely not the case. I was afraid it would be so different from the picture in my head created so superbly by Davis and Paul Henreid (who plays her love interest) but the movie adaptation appears to have strayed little from the original story. It is an easy, flowing book to read, keeping you interested and moving along swiftly.
Charlotte Vale of the wealthy Boston Vales has had a nervous breakdown and spent the last year in a sanitorium called Cascade, convalescing and trying to save herself from her domineering Mother and looming, permanent spinsterhood. Buying more time away from home to continue to blossom, she has embarked on a long, overseas cruise and meets Jerry, an unhappily married man who accompanies her on sightseeing excursions. As Charlotte gets to know Jerry better she starts to let down her guard and let him in on her past and how painful and lonely her life has been up until now. The youngest child born to a mother of advanced maternal age with uptight Victorian values, Charlotte has never been allowed to mature and become her own person. Her mother has told her that "she is a child of her old age" and it is clear she wasn't wanted. Having three older, successful brothers who have shown her disregard and contempt has only served to divide her further from a feeling of independence and confidence.
Jerry, and his friends who are on the cruise with him, reveal his troubles at home with his serious, prim, Puritanical wife, Isobel and his sense of devotion and love for his daughters cause him to stay bound to a miserable marriage where he provides for his family in practical ways while ignoring his lifelong dream of becoming a successful architect. Charlotte and Jerry begin as friends and companions but as events cause them to spend more and more time together, their innocent relationship moves from sporadic flirtation to a full romantic entanglement. When the cruise comes to an end, the two part, agreeing it will be the last time they will contact each other. Each return home to the harsh reality of their lives in America vowing to be grateful for their time together but determined to create a future without one another.
Charlotte tries to keep her end of the bargain. Using the new found confidence instilled in her from her beloved psychiatrist from Cascade, Dr. Jacquith, she asserts herself with her mother and although she plans to stay at home for now, she makes certain she carves out her own identity. She and her mother arrive at a truce of sorts and learn to live with the changes brought about in Charlotte's newfound lifestyle. The only reminder of Jerry is the camellia flowers he anonymously sends her that serve to let her know he still loves and cares for her. But just when she thinks she is ready to move on with a new chapter in her life, fate steps in and pulls them back together.
This novel is written simply but has a deep, meaningful message throughout. The author skillfully conveys the transformation of Charlotte from ugly duckling to beautiful swan and just like in the movie version we are often privy to her stream of consciousness dialogue inside her head and get to witness firsthand her struggles and insecurities. You root for her to succeed and for Jerry to be happy. Both are adherents of duty and obligation and strive to do what is right even if it means sacrificing their own happiness. Prouty creates characters here that make you long for them to be together while feeling that the very fact that they aren't is why you respect them.
Charlotte's mother is also expertly portrayed as the uncaring, selfish woman who has done her utmost to ruin her daughter's life. At one point she states, "when she was young, foolish, I made decisions for her, always the right decisions. One would think a child would wish to repay her mother's love and kindness." Later in the book Charlotte tells her, "I didn't want to be born, you didn't want me to be born. It's been a calamity on both sides."
There are two other novels about the Vale family. I am interested in reading them but they are hard to find. Now, Voyager was a cinematic hit and so it is easily available online and to purchase in book form. Until I started doing a bit of research for this post, I had no idea there was more to the family's story. Some people have described her books as early YA fiction but after reading this book, I disagree. While her writing style isn't hard to understand or full of difficult vocabulary like some classic works, the subject matter would not be as easily identified with in a younger person who has not been through some heartache. It is one of those stories that I have grown up with but didn't fully "get" until I was a bit older. It is a great book to read even if you've seen the movie.