The Wapshot Chronicle, the first of John Cheever’s five novels, may have taken him more than a decade-and-a-half to complete, but it was well worth the wait. The novel was published in March 1957 and in 1958 was awarded the National Book Award. More than fifty years have passed since its publication, and today the novel seems to receive neither the attention nor the respect it deserves. This is unfortunate, because today’s reader will still enjoy The Wapshot Chronicle and appreciate it as the exceptional work that it is.
The Wapshot family is an old New England family whose best days are long behind it. The family may still be one of the most prominent ones in little St. Botolphs, Massachusetts, but its remaining wealth is controlled entirely by the elderly and very eccentric Honora Wapshot who lives alone with her longtime housekeeper. The rest of the St. Botolphs Wapshots, Leander, Sarah, and their two sons, Moses and Coverly, live in a big rambling house not far from Honora and depend on her for the financial support needed to maintain their rather leisurely lifestyle.
The Wapshot Chronicle is very much the coming-of-age story of Moses and Coverly, brothers who, as they grow into young men, are suddenly handed responsibility for ensuring Cousin Honora’s continuing financial support of themselves and their parents. The always slightly out of touch Honora, via some logic all her own, sets a goal for the boys that will earn each of them a fortune if accomplished. None of the Wapshots could know, though, how deeply Honora’s deal would mark the rest of their lives.
Cheever fills The Wapshot Chronicle with dominating, sometimes cruel and thoughtless, women whom his male characters have little chance of influencing. What happens to Leander and his two sons might seem truly tragic in a different book, but Cheever tells their story with such boisterous good humor, and with such understanding of even his most vicious female characters, that The Wapshot Chronicle reads as very much the satirical comedy he intended it to be.
And then there is Honora - life would be much more fun if every family had its own Cousin Honora.
Rated at: 5.0
(I'm finishing Cheever's second novel right now, The Wapshot Scandal, and I plan to move directly on to the other two novels and his novella. I've never immersed myself in an author to this extent before and I'm finding it an interesting experience. I'm reading Cheever from a fantastic new Library of America collection that includes all five books, so this is an easy project. I love Library of America collections - there are about 30 of them on my shelves now - and I definitely reccomend them to everyone interested in a high quality publication at a great price.)
Needless to say, more Cheever reviews are coming...