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By Love Possessed - James Gould Cozzens

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By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens.

 

"Love conquers all -- omnia vincit amor, said the gold scroll in a curve beneath the dial of the old French gilt clock. To the dial's right, a nymph, her head on her arm, drowsed, largely undraped, at the mouth of a gold grotto where perhaps she lived. To the dial's left, a youth, by his crook and the pair of lambs with him, a shepherd, had taken cover. Parting fronds of gold vegetation he peeped at the sleeping beauty. On top of the dial, and all unnoticed by the youth, a smiling cupid perched, bow bent, about to loose an arrow at the peeper's heart. While Arthur Winner viewed with faint amusement this romantic grouping, so graceful and absurd, the clock struck three."

So begins By Love Possessed, written in the long sentences, large vocabulary and involved syntax of Cozzen's elaborate and noticeable style. The story is indeed about love and, especially from this distance, also about time. And not least about Arthur Winner, the prosperous rising young lawyer who is well regarded by all.

 

Written in the 50's the setting is an upscale neighborhood in a small New England town with many of the picture-perfect features of respectability that might come to mind from that time: white clapboard colonial houses on trimmed lawns; a town square dominated by a church on one side, with a slender steeple spearing itself straight up into a blue sky; and a stately courthouse with a painted-white Greek-columned facade facing it across the square -- the very monuments of religion and justice combined in an orderly suburb.

 

The action takes place over a summery weekend, in the forty-nine hours begun by that clock strking three on that Friday afternoon, as life relaxes for its usual outdoor enjoyments of picnicking, and swimming, and relaxing with one's friends, colleagues and neighbors. But scrapes of people with the law know no weekends, and Arthur Winner is a lawyer, so his weekend is also interlaced with legal complexities and obligations that reach out of the neighborhood, spread across town lines into different social, ethnic and religious strata, and embroil some of his acquaintances and colleagues.

 

Throughout, Cozzens shows life and events unfolding, not altogether orderly, in response to a complicated and conflicting mesh of a myriad of personal allegiances and affections ranging from professional respect, through amorous dalliances, to familial and married devotion. For that realism, the book drew some criticism, according to the Introduction, because "his objective revelations of the vanity of human wishes upset readers accustomed to reassuring messages about the nobility of human nature."

 

The passage of time brings us to the present day, fifty years after the novel's publication in 1957, when we can look back, through the pages of this novel, to a considerably calmer and more placid time in our history and notice how times have changed, or not. This was the future that this reviewer and others once aspired to, as we were starting out in life, and it is a picture perfect representation of one part of the American story, as well as an absorbing drama as Arthur Winner is forced to grow in maturity in ways he never could have expected.

 

Not necessarily an easy read, it is a long book with an enlarged vocabulary that might drive one to a dictionary from time to time, but as the author of the Introduction claims "sixty odd words in a 570 page novel is not an outrageous proportion," before he then presents a list of definitions for the convenience of readers. It is however a brightly lit story of life as it once was, and definitely worth reading before it escapes from our memories completely.

Edited by Paul

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Oh, I enjoyed BLP so much! It held my interest all the way through, I had to know what happened to those people. Cozzens certainly knew how to weave a story. :)

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This is such a well thought out and presented review Paul! I really enjoyed reading it; your attention to detail captured the essence of the story beautifully and has inspired me to order the Book, thank-you!

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Oh, I enjoyed BLP so much! It held my interest all the way through, I had to know what happened to those people. Cozzens certainly knew how to weave a story. :)

 

Cozzens certainly did put together a story with many layers of interlocking sub-plots, didn't he? They frequently started out only as seemingly background fill-in and eventually grew to unexpected major issues to be resolved. It was indeed fantastic story telling!

 

This is such a well thought out and presented review Paul! I really enjoyed reading it; your attention to detail captured the essence of the story beautifully and has inspired me to order the Book, thank-you!

 

Shelbel,

Thank you for your kind comment! I truly hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I have -- twice now -- and as much as I enjoyed writing that review as a tribute to it. I read it when it first came out, and now more recently after 50 years (gasp!), and it was an absorbing and breath-taking experience both times.

Edited by Michelle
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