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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Aunt's Story

Patrick White

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To purchase The Aunt's Story

Title: The Aunt's Story
Author: Patrick White
Genre: Novel
Written: 1948
Length: 287 pages
Availability: The Aunt's Story - US
The Aunt's Story - UK
The Aunt's Story - Canada

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Our Assessment:

A- : powerful writing, effective story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 21/2/1948 Diana Trilling
The New Republic . 16/2/1948 John Woodburn
The NY Herald Trib. Book Rev. . 4/1/1948 Iris Barry
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 11/1/1948 James Stern
The New Yorker . 10/1/1948 Hamilton Basso
TLS B 2/10/1948 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Patrick White's third novel is a brilliant, original and highly intelligent piece of work. It is also, thank heaven, gay and witty -- as well as tragic, sometimes profound." - James Stern, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The hit-or-miss way of writing may release subtle associations in the reader's mind, or it may fall flat; sometimes ridiculous, it is often stimulating." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Aunt's Story is Theodora Goodman's story. The novel begins with the death of her mother, finally freeing Theodora, who had long been caring for her. Theodora's life contrasts with that of her sister, Fanny, who is married and has some children. All Theodora has managed is to be a spinster -- and an aunt:

This thing a spinster, she sometimes mused, considering her set mouth; this thing a spinster which, at best, becomes that institution an aunt.
       She isn't entirely unhappy with being an aunt. She loves her niece Lou, in particular, dearly, and she sees that she is an important figure to the girl, providing something her parents can't. Still, Theodora decides to take advantage of her new-found freedom, to go abroad.
       Before continuing in the present, however, White has her revisit the past, describing her childhood and how she came to be who she is.
       Fanny is the more beloved of the girls. The domineering mother is always pleased by the plain and simple Fanny, while Theodora is too complicated for her to truly embrace. Theodora is more ambitious. She is odd. She is a crack shot (something that ties her to her father, a man who also couldn't quite succeed). She is a seeker, and has ambition.
       'I shall know everything,' Theodora said.
       To wrap it up and put it in a box. This is the property of Theodora Goodman. But until this time, things floated out of reach. She put out her hand, they bobbed and were gone. She listened to the voices that murmured the other side of the wall.
       Theodora is near a tree hit by lightning -- "but I survived", she says. A wise stranger tells her: "It is sometimes like that." He also foresees her future:
'You'll see a lot of funny things, Theodora Goodman. You'll see them because you've eyes to see. And they'll break you. But perhaps you'll survive.'
       Fanny eventually gets the boy -- Frank Parrott -- and Theodora gets to take care of mother. Theodora could marry -- she fascinates Huntly Clarkson, and they become close friends -- but she does not. It is not in her.
       Fanny, once she has fulfilled her ambition, is easily dismissed:
Fanny was safe now, she had children and possessions, she could dispense with love.
       For Theodora safety is never that easy to find. Her role as aunt -- even as "the Respected Aunt" --, does not suffice. And so she sets out for Europe. To find a world. To find herself.
       The first section of the novel is called Meroë, after the house in which the Goodman's lived. The second part is Jardin Exotique, after the odd refuge, the exotic garden, she is drawn to in a French hotel. She spends considerable time there, and White ignores most of the rest of her travels, focussing on her experiences there, and the characters she encounters.
       Among the guests at the hotel there is Katina Pavlou, a teenage girl looking for love, to whom she can also be an aunt. There is also General Alyosha Sergei Sokolnikov, who winds up seeing in her his sister, Ludmilla (a role she willingly submits to).
       The exotic garden is "completely static, rigid, the equation of a garden." It is, ultimately, too much for Theodora, as her imagination overpowers reality -- not helped by the fact that the bizarre, dreamy reality the guests at the hotel live in is an unnatural state itself. Disaster ultimately, inevitably comes.
       The brief final section, Holstius, finds Theodora in the middle of the United States. She has almost completely lost touch with reality, and in the final scenes she gets off a train in the middle of nowhere and wanders aimlessly. She is taken in by a family -- briefly allowing her to reprise her role as aunt -- but she wanders off again.
       "Why then, said Theodora Goodman, is this world which is so tangible in appearance so difficult to hold ?" That is her difficulty. Those around her finally recognize that she has become essentially mentally unbalanced, and at the end she is taken away to be institutionalized -- surviving, just, but unable to find her place. She will submit, finally, but without being taken in.

       White effectively portrays Theodora's descent into madness. She is a rich, fully and sympathetically drawn figure. The story, progressing in the large jumps (and tripartite fashion favoured by White), doesn't always flow as neatly as one might wish, but it does work well enough. It is a very economically told tale: there is no excess, of either language or of incidents.
       Some of the time White still seems to be feeling his way, seeing what he can do with language, how far he can go. Throughout, there are short sentences, White compressing an incident into a few words before expanding it again. He can write: "Not long after this what happened, happened."
       White is not always certain in his description, overreaching on occasion -- and yet still almost always managing to convey the image, the thought he has in mind. Only rarely does the description sound wrong: "Her clothes were quiescent and formalized as stone."
       An impressive effort, and a fine, truly moving read.

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About the Author:

       Patrick White (1912-1990), Australian author. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. Schooled in England (at Cheltenham, and King's College, Cambridge). His first novel Happy Valley was published in 1939. Worked for R.A.F Intelligence during WWII, after which he returned to Australia.

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