The best-selling novel that became an Oscar-winning film starring Elizabeth Taylor about New York's speakeasy generation.
A masterpiece of American fiction and a best seller upon its publication in 1935, BUtterfield 8 lays bare with brash honesty the unspoken and often shocking truths that lurked beneath the surface of a society still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. One Sunday morning, Gloria wakes up in a stranger's apartment with nothing but a torn evening dress, stockings, and panties. When she steals a fur coat from the wardrobe to wear home, she unleashes a series of events that can only end in tragedy. Inspired by true events, this novel caused a sensation on its publication for its frank depiction of the relationship between a wild and beautiful young woman and a respectable, married man.
©2013 John O'Hara (P)2014 Penguin Audio
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I've always found John O'Hara a wildly uneven writer, and this classic is no exception. His dialogue can be brilliantly witty, tart, and revealing about his characters in one chapter and lazily chatty and long-winded in the next. His famous observations about class and society are shrew and precise on one page and dissolve into pointlessly long lists of the names of speakeasies or jazz musicians a few pages later. He was known for being shockingly frank about sex, and indeed, this tendency gives this and other novels an honesty and relevance about people and real life that rivals Balzac or Zola. (And is far more interesting than the coy reserve of most of his contemporaries.) And yet, there are places where you feel he's simply trying to shock the reader or (worse still) titillate himself with references to lesbianism and exhibitionism and orgies and abortions. The book takes place over the course of a few days, and O'Hara seamlessly weaves together the perspectives of a large cast of characters whose lives touch each other significantly or tangentially. But his long digressions about his characters' pasts sometimes feel like filler that should have been edited down or out.
Despite rough patches, this book has incredible power. There's something fresh about the blunt writing, and the story gathers steam leading up to its explosive ending. Although he's often compared with Fitzgerald, the prose couldn't be more different. A more apt comparison might be Dreiser. Even the uneven writing contributes somehow to its power--as if the writer was rushing headlong to get it all down.
Gretchen Moll's reading is good but undistinguished. It works well for the journalistic aspects of the novel, and her voice has a tone that feels appropriate for the period--the 1930's. But she doesn't do much to bring individual characters to life and doesn't help to make Gloria the tough but sympathetic character O'Hara created.
"a little drab for me"
As much as I liked Appointment in Samarra, I was let down by this. Overall I tired of the pointless drunken existence of these people.
On the other hand, I do think that it gives a sense of the times; the "lost generation"; the rote daily existence; those who don't take responsibility for their actions, or at least seek easy solutions; the constant alcoholism; double standards; aimlessness.
I guess I felt it was rather directionless compared to other "classics" of the period, even his own Samarra. The style is very Hemingway-esque for the most part.
Elements made me think of, and wish for the audio of, P.J. Wolfson's Three of a Kind (a great noir of the Cain Postman variety) but particularly for Is My Flesh of Brass?, (1934) a great novel concerning unscrupulous doctors and abortion that predates by a year Butterfield (1935).
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