Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Magnolia City by Duncan W. Alderson

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: April 28, 2014

Houston in the 1920s is a city of established cotton kings and newly rich oil barons, where the elite live in beaux art mansions behind the gates of Courtlandt Place. Kirby Augustus Allen, grandson of the Allen brothers who founded Houston as a real estate deal, is grooming his daughter Hetty to marry Lamar Rusk, scion of the Splendora oil fortune. Instead, at the No-Tsu-Oh Carnival of 1928, beautiful, rebellious Hetty encounters a mysterious man from Montana dressed in the gear of a wildcatter--an outsider named Garret MacBride. Hetty is torn between Lamar's lavish courtship and her instinctive connection to Garret. As Lamar's wife she would be guaranteed acceptance to the highest ranks of Houston society. Yet Garret, poor but powerfully ambitious, offers the adventure she craves, with rendezvous in illicit jazz clubs and reckless nights of passion. The men's intense rivalry extends to business, as rumors of a vast, untapped ocean of oil in East Texas spark a frenzy that can make fortunes--or shatter lives and dreams beyond repair. A sweeping, sumptuous debut that evokes the turmoil and drama rippling through the history of the Lone Star State, Magnolia City is a story of love, greed, jealousy, and redemption, brought to life through the eyes of its unforgettable heroine.

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I was ecstatic when I finished Duncan W. Alderson's Magnolia City, euphoric even. I’d come, I’d read, and though it was an uphill battle from the beginning, I had conquered. This smug sense of triumph set the tone for my review, imbuing my commentary with a sarcasm Alderson’s work didn’t necessarily deserve, something I realized while proofing my work. Don’t misunderstand, I am still delighted at being done with this book. I’m simply acknowledging that quiet reflection afforded an appreciation for the story that was not evidenced until I’d said goodbye to Hetty Allen, Lamar Rusk and Garret MacBride.

From a historical perspective, Magnolia City is a masterpiece. Layers of minute detail provide an astounding backdrop, effectively transporting readers to a bygone age. Alderson’s subtle manipulation of fact is delicately refined and so seamless that one hardly realizes where truth meets fiction.

Alderson’s prose adds another dimension to the narrative. The glittering opulence of Bayou Bend, the fiery burn of mescal, the unmistakable scent of oil fresh from the earth. His evocative and lyrical descriptions produce a piercingly vivid portrait, one that wholly immerses his audience in Hetty’s experiences and complex affairs. 

The problem I have with this piece, is its length. Alderson’s themes are introduced early on, but they so vague and scattered that pinpointing their nature and connecting one to the next is a practical impossibility. I’m not exaggerating, I spent most of the narrative frustrated at what I identified as lack of direction, fighting the urge to scream at what seemed a mishmash of unrelated concepts. I often felt lost in the immense scope of the narrative and though I was ultimately impressed with Alderson’s thesis, I can’t help feeling the novel is about two hundred pages longer than it needs to be. 

Would I recommend the book? I don’t know. I suppose it would depend on the reader. Magnolia City is by no means an easy read and might not be the best choice for those seeking immediate satisfaction, but it is a dramatic and emotionally poignant story that shouldn't be undervalued.

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"The Old Houston and all it stood for, is demolished. We're living in a Depression, in case you hadn't noticed. We can't afford these pretensions anymore."
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